Sunday, October 17, 2010

Dark Road to Darjeeling: A Review

Anyone who loves mysteries, especially historical mysteries with just a touch of romance, and hasn't yet met Lady Julia and Nicholas Brisbane, you need to run right out to the store or library (or log into and get hold of the first in the four-book (so far) series of mysteries set during the Victorian era.  They are that good.

As many others commenters have noted, the first two lines of Silent in the Grave, the first book of the series, are among the most memorable in recent times:
"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."
How could anyone not continue reading after that?  Not me, and I've continued to follow the exploits of Lady Julia and Brisbane as soon as each new novel came out: Silent in the Sanctuary, Silent on the Moor, and now, the latest, published October 1, 2010, Dark Road to Darjeeling.

The story begins in Egypt but moves to India, where, in a valley at the very feet of the Himalayas, Lady Julia and her party set out to investigate the possible murder of their distant relative Freddie Cavendish.  Freddie, heir to a tea plantation called The Peacocks, had married Jane, the former lover of Julia's sister Portia.  Now Jane is now a widow and pregnant with Freddie's child.  Having reread the last few sentences, I realize that it all sounds contrived, but the complicated relationships upon which the mystery depends make perfect sense as described in the novel.

The exotic locale lends a completely different flavour to Dark Road.  It is definitely not England, even though some of the characters try their utmost to behave as if they were in the center of London, with their starchy insistence on Victorian manners and tea and boiled meat.  Aside from the humor of the Brits' conceit, the novel makes clear the colonial tensions simmering just below the surface.

At the heart of the novel, though, are Julia's intrepid (some might call it stubborn) spirit and her unconventional relationship (some might say rivalry) with Brisbane, setting up a sometimes delightful, sometimes maddening tension that runs through the entire course of the novel.  Once or twice I admit that I found myself thinking irritably that if Brisbane were to run out on Julia without explanation one more time I was going to throw the book against the wall, but by the end of the novel when the truth came out, I came to understand his reasoning and, even, to agree with him to an exent.  Which brings me to one of the difficulties of a novel written in the first person: all we can know is what the narrator knows or believes, or suspects, and thus are we as much in the dark as Julia when it comes to Brisbane's surliness and seemingly inexplicable inability to share his thoughts with her.  I do have to say, though, that I love the way the relationship is growing in a realistic (for the two unconventional protagonists) manner.

The other characters ~ including a very proper British spinster, a handsome plantation manager and would-be heir, a beautiful, well-educated native girl, a drunken doctor, a minister and his highly unorthodox family, Lady Julia's mysterious and suspect female cousins who are living in seclusion on the estate, as well as the White Rajah, a strange old man who has taken up abode in a ruined Buddhist monastery and keeps track of all the gossip going on the valley ~ are every one much more than cardboard cutouts, nor are they often at all what they appear to be.  Then there is the charming eccentricity of Lady Julia's siblings Portia and Plum (short for Eglamour ~ however did the Victorians come up with some of their names?) to lighten the mood with their witty repartee and to add piquancy to an otherwise dark tale.

As to the mystery itself, much of the first part of the novel consists of Lady Julia, in a bid to out-detective Brisbane, speculating upon the most likely  killer, if there had even, in fact, been a murder at all (something that was far from certain from the evidence).  Julia's suspicions rest first on this character, then that character, only to alight on someone entirely new after a new piece of information is brought to her notice.  The final quarter of the story, though, shifts into high gear, and, almost too quickly, sad event is followed by horror is followed by stunning revelation is followed by denoument and then, finally, by a final tragedy.  I won't say more than this, but at that point I was pretty much sobbing.

Dark Road to Darjeeling was a lovely historical mystery, even though some of it dragged a bit, and I look forward eagerly to the next installment, nicely hinted at in the final paragraph.

NOTE: I received a free e-copy of this novel from NetGalley in exchange for my review. I was not obligated to review it or even to finish it, and I will receive no payment for having done so.  All opinions expressed in the review are my own.

No comments: