Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Book 34: Lady of Ashes

I don't remember where I first saw this mentioned, but I'm pretty sure it was a book blog, and I liked the cover as well as the premise so I thought it would work well to fill my historical mystery fix.  While the novel was entertaining enough, the mystery was rather beside the point (it isn't until page 250 of a 400 page novel that someone even thinks a body looks a bit odd, even though there are journal entries from the killer throughout so the reader won't forget this is a murder mystery), and the novel was packed with an overabundance of plot lines and historical details.
Violet Morgan and her husband Graham run an undertaking business in Victorian London, and since Victorian England was a bit obsessed with grief and mourning, business is good.  In fact it is so good that it is causing significant strains on their marriage, as her husband has let his success go to his head, and wants a wife that is focused on the household and entertaining rather than a partner in business which is what their relationship started as.  The Civil War in the United States has also had its first battle and both sides have been sending representatives to England for support and acknowledgment.  Graham has this super weird obsession with America and hates them because of what they did to his grandfather during the War of 1812, blaming all Americans for the fact that his grandfather came back a broken man?  Had a bad experience as a POW?  I couldn't quite understand the extent of his rage since his grandfather obviously survived and came back to England to run a prosperous undertaking business to pass on to his family.  This whole plot point never made sense to me because I didn't get what he was trying to get vengeance for.  At one point, very early on, he describes his grandfather's experiences, how he took a coat off a dead body to blend in with the population, and pretended to be dead when soldiers approached.  One of these "barbarian" soldiers then tried to take the coat off what he perceived to be a dead body.  When Graham's grandfather did it, it was a matter of survival, when this American does it, it means that they are uncivilized animals.  As I said, this whole vengeance scheme never made sense.  Graham's brother is all about profiteering and hence wants to smuggle things into the South so I understood that, and think it would have done wonders for the novel if Graham's motivations had been equally simple rather than having the husband be a raving lunatic.
Undertaking and Civil War plots with a dash of murder mystery would probably be enough for any novel, but there is also a runaway orphan that Violet adopts, a train wreck, the royal family, Prince Albert's royal funeral and various chapters on hiring the proper help (I still don't know why she had to hire a maid only to have her steal and then hire another one - the first maid never shows back up so I'm not sure why she couldn't have just found the good maid to begin with - too much detail for one novel) ... basically, anything that might have taken place in 1861 probably gets a mention in this novel.  Violet is even neighbors with Karl Marx after all!  The spy/smuggling plot point is mostly boring, and the murder mystery never is actually that interesting.  This may be because no one except the reader realizes there is a murder mystery!  Violet just kind of gets sucked into the drama after thinking a few of her clients' deaths look like they have a link.
Overall, it's an adequate piece of historical fiction though the author does stuff too much into the story and she tried to add too many character perspectives that weren't necessary (there are scenes from the American ambassador and Queen Victoria's perspectives), but it is less than satisfying as a mystery (especially since we know there is something suspicious about one character the first scene they are in).  I would also say there are a few cases of characters doing things merely for the sake of the plot, and acting dumber than I would expect of them - Violet particularly went back and forth between being a compentent character and unable to put two and two together.  And I would really be curious if there was a great hate of America in England as portrayed by Graham in this time period, because it just didn't seem accurate to me - I would get condescending, but not vengeful.  This was definitely more of a 2.5 for me than a 3, and I don't feel much desire to see what happens next.

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