Thursday, July 12, 2012

Crime Fiction: The Gilded Shroud and The Deadly Portent by Elizabeth Bailey

Elizabeth Bailey’s The Gilded Shroud (Berkley), published last fall, was billed as the first book in a new series. But it isn’t the sort of book I usually look for. From the blurb on the back cover, it sounded like romantic suspense -- a genre not at the top of my “must-read” list.

Still, I like English historicals, and this one is set during the Regency Period (1811-1820).

I picked the novel up in the middle of a long, hard week, when all I could think about was how badly I needed a vacation.

Shroud turned out to be the equivalent of a well-run hotel -- a place you’ve been to before, perhaps, but where the rooms are clean and comfortable, the food properly cooked and the management is ever-present but discreet. Maybe it’s not an exciting new destination, but it’s a welcome respite all the same.

Bailey’s story opens with the gruesome death of Emily, the wife of the Marquis of Polbrook. Regrettably, the marquis himself is nowhere to be found, leaving his brother Francis (aka “Fan”) to pick up the pieces. A family heirloom is also missing.

Their formidable mother is on the scene with her temporary companion, Otilla “Tillie” Draycott. A young widow who lost her husband fighting in the former American colonies, Tillie is the focus here. She’s smart, observant, outspoken and not involved in Polbrook family dynamics -- in short, the perfect investigator.

There’s an immediate attraction between Tillie and Fan, so we all know where that’s going.

Nevertheless, the book is well-plotted and quite engaging, filled with, but not overwhelmed by, interesting period details.

The characters are well-drawn and distinct, including the many servants. I was particularly fond of the crusty dowager marchioness; I’ve a soft spot for these tough old birds who don’t cave under pressure. My one tiny complaint is that it is possible to get a wee bit tired of Tillie’s charming “gurgle,” even if it is also a “giggle.”

I probably should have left well enough alone, but I had no sooner finished reading Shroud than its 2012 sequel, The Deathly Portent (Berkley), turned up.

In this second story, Fan and Tillie have a coach accident that interrupts their journey. They find a room -- and a mystery -- at a nearby village, Witherley. The village is all agog over the death of its blacksmith and terrified with the belief that young Cassie Dale, who is apparently gifted with “second sight,” is really a witch who caused the death.

Witherley’s new preacher, Aidan Kinnerton, comes to Cassie’s defense. And so does Tillie. Plus, true to form, there’s Lady Ferrensby, the outspoken old woman who serves as the village patron.

Regrettably, the villagers speak in a peculiar dialect that gets old after a few chapters. A little less verisimilitude would have been welcome.

And there’s only so much of this sort of writing I can take: “Francis was struck anew with the fervent admiration that had been his early reaction to the extraordinary woman of whom he now had possession.”

Still, this is a pretty good mystery. It is well written, the characters are lively and the details unfold at a manageable pace.

Yet I wasn’t very happy. I found myself thinking not of Witherley, but of Pemberley, and another bright and outspoken young woman who attracts a titled husband. And Elizabeth Bennett doesn’t “gurgle.”

Maybe this is a hotel I want to visit only once a year. ◊

Roberta Alexander is an editor and mystery reviewer in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home