Sunday, September 3, 2017

Book Review: 'A Perilous Undertaking' by Deanna Raybourn

“A Perilous Undertaking” is Deanna Raybourn’s second in her series featuring lepidopterist Veronica Speedwell, a champion of women's rights who speaks her mind at the most inconvenient times, and natural historian, former naval surgeon, and taxidermist Revelstoke Templeton-Vane (Stoker). In “A Curious Beginning,” the two teamed up to solve a murder. Now, it is 1887, and a figure in the royal family asks the pair to investigate the killing of a gifted artist, Maud Eresby, who renamed herself Artemisia. The victim's married lover, Miles Ramsforth, has already been convicted of the crime. Unless Victoria and Stoker can prove that Miles is innocent, he will be hanged.

Raybourn' s writing is witty, literate, sassy, vividly descriptive, and a bit naughty. She cheerfully pokes fun at the affectations and and haughtiness of individuals who believe that their social inferiors exist to serve them. Although they are close friends and colleagues, Veronica and Stoker are sarcastic, ill tempered, and impatient with one another. They carry heavy emotional baggage; both had difficult childhoods and were saddled with cruel relatives who treated them contemptuously.

The mystery, alas, is not as compelling. The investigators interviews witnesses and risk bodily harm searching for clues behind locked doors and in hidden compartments. Since we never meet either Miles or Artemisia, they remain ciphers, gossiped about but never becoming quite real in our minds. Raybourn's characters are, by turns, hilarious, peculiar, obnoxious, and deceitful. One scene has a self-important female sculptor posing a nude Stoker as Perseus holding the head of the Gorgon. Red herrings abound, and after much fuss and bother, our sleuths close in on the culprit. One inducement to read this book is what it reveals about Stoker’s past (undoubtedly there will be additional surprises to come); the poor man has suffered greatly and has good reason to walk around with a permanent scowl on his face. “A Perilous Undertaking” stands out for its amusing and literate dialogue and the ways in which the author exposes the hypocrisy of Victorians who feigned respectability in public, but behaved scandalously in private.

Editor's note: This review was written by Eleanor Bukowsky and has been reposted with permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.

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