Thursday, September 24, 2015

Lively Victorian Mystery, A CURIOUS BEGINNING, Deanna Raybourn

For regular readers of historical mysteries, Deanna Raybourn is a familiar name, author of the Lady Julia Grey series. A CURIOUS BEGINNING is the start of a new series, featuring Victoria Speedwell -- and it's great fun.

Victoria's been an orphan "all her life" pretty much -- adopted (after her mother's death) as a small child by two spinster aunts, and moving often from one location in England to another. As an adult, she's already a much-traveled adventurer and lepidopterist whose butterfly-collecting adventures include travel overseas, exploration of volcanoes and jungles, and a generous amount of romantic yet unfettered exploration along the way. (But never with anyone from "home," from England.)

At the modest funeral in 1887 for her remaining aunt, whom she tended at the end, Victoria realizes that while she may not have many riches beyond her butterfly net and her adroitly fashioned clothing (and modest protective gear, from hatpins to blades), she's free to make her own way. "Aunt Nell had been the final knotted obligation tying me to England, and I was unfettered once and for all, able to make my way in the world as I chose."

After bluntly declining plans made by the local vicar and his wife for her future, her return to her aunts' home to collect her carpetbag and leave the key is abruptly knocked off kilter by an invasion and attempted kidnapping. The Baron Maximilian von Stauffenbach arrives in the nick of time to assist her, and escorts her to London (a very festive city, preparing for the Golden Jubilee of the Queen) -- where he leaves her for safekeeping in the fascinating home-and-workshop of a clever if grouchy taxidermist, Mr. Stoker. But the Baron's murder quickly puts an end to any safety in this location, as well as to Victoria's hopes of learning about her dead mother from the Baron, who seemed somehow connected. Soon she's in flight with Stoker, toward refuge with a gypsy circus, and more threats, risks, and adventures.

The change is just what she needed:
I was not meant for sickrooms and poultices; I was fashioned of the stern stuff of adventurers. ... I felt in this new adventure I was rousing to life again. I was a butterfly, newly emerged from the chrysalis, damp winged and trembling with anticipation. ... There would be time enough for my own flight, I decided.
Yet even circus travel isn't safe enough, as murderers and other violent sorts pick up her trail. Soon Victoria's showing her courage and skills, and rather regretting, in terms of her companion, Stoker, that she's made a practice of not romancing Englishmen.

I enjoyed this lively romp with a heroine who surely would have scandalized her Victorian contemporaries -- although of course there were similar adventurous women in that time who simply left their stodgy homeland and arrived in, say, Arabia. Victoria Speedwell is clearly their sort. Her escapades and escapes are a delight. And if the final untwisting of the mystery is a wee bit over the top, well, it's all in fun anyway, just as every day with this staunch scientific romantic is bound to be. I look forward to more in the series! And since this is a new series, there's no need to go looking for preceding titles.

Victoria Speedwell isn't quite as firmly in charge as, say, Georgette Heyer's "Grand Sophy," but she's much more aware and skilled than Marguerite St. Just in The Scarlet Pimpernel. Her scientific knowledge, of course, brings to mind Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce. And as a whole, the book has the merriment of a good Sherlock Holmes pastiche. Recommended for pure entertainment!

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