At this point in my mid-winter doldrums, it was definitely time for something fluffy. If you like Victorian mysteries with a little bit of romance, you can’t do better than Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey series. Each of these books is better than the next, and it’s fluff I don’t feel too guilty about reading (not that we need to feel guilty at all). If this kind of book is your thing, I definitely recommend you pick up book one in the series, Silent in the Grave, and skip the rest of this review.
When we last saw Julia and Brisbane, they were struggling to figure out how they could overcome the restrictions of society, income, and profession and get married. Happily, those issues were resolved and Brisbane and Julia are now on their honeymoon. Unhappily, their honeymoon has been hijacked by Julia’s overbearing family and they are now en route to India to help Julia’s sister Portia solve a murder and rescue her beloved former partner Jane. Jane’s husband has just died, and no one knows if the death was intentional; if so, Jane might be next. She carries a child who, if a boy, will be the next heir to a wealthy tea plantation.
Julia, Portia, their brother Plum, and Brisbane head to a very small, very remote town near the Himalayas. Unfortunately, Julia and Brisbane are off to a bad start, clearly struggling to communicate with each other as husband and wife. Julia wants to help her family, so when Portia asks Julia to conceal the reason for their travel to Darjeeling from Brisbane, Julia does so, which is of course a mistake. Brisbane resents her deception and decides to stay in Calcutta to work on another job. Of course he arrives in Darjeeling in time to help with the investigation, which takes a number of strange turns and involves a man-eating tiger, drugs, snakes, an alcoholic doctor, and a hermit in a Buddhist monastery.
The setting of the book was a lot of fun. I can’t begin to say it’s realistic, having never been to a remote tea plantation in India in the 1800s. Some of it — the rampaging tiger and leprous fortune teller, for example — seemed a little over the top. But the interplay between the English and the Indians was complex and well-described, and I liked that the setting and culture was integral to the story.
But the strength of Raybourn’s series is not the mysteries themselves but the relationship between Brisbane and Julia. I love that even after marriage these two encounter genuine difficulties in relating to each other and acting as a team. Julia wants adventure and Brisbane wants her to be safe. Julia wants to be an equal partner in Brisbane’s investigations but Brisbane feels she lacks his training and physical strength (both true). These characters have to explore some of the issues every married couple deals with, like when does family trump your loyalty to your spouse, how much interference from one’s family is too much, and what does it actually mean to be equal partners in a marriage. Julia thinks she is absolutely right to fight for her independence in marriage. She demands to be treated with respect and not to be forced into a traditional role. But it takes time for her to realize that Brisbane may have different and equally valid opinions, and she needs to work harder at understanding his point of view. That they love each other is never in question; the harder part is living and working together.
I didn’t love the way the mystery is ultimately resolved, but then that isn’t why you read these books. Read it because it’s fun, because Brisbane is a terribly sexy hero, and because Julia is clever and tough and never backs down. Read it because it’s a break from your work, from school, or whatever weightier book you’ve been reading lately. And if you’re married, don’t be surprised if this book actually makes you think a little about your relationship, too.