Saturday, August 28, 2010

Silent in the Grave (book) by Deanna Raybourn

I checked this book out from my library because I liked the cover. Also, I had vague memories of really liking books published by Mira - or maybe I'm thinking of Luna, a publisher that prompted me to try to figure out how to search my public library's catalog by publisher, well before I'd ever even thought of taking my first cataloging class.

Anyway, this was a pretty quick read for me, despite its 435 page length. I wasn't always sure whether I liked Julia, the main character, or disliked her - for the most part, I think I liked her with a small side of dislike. Mostly, that had to do with my frustration at her bouts of stupidity, which cropped up even though she was an overall clear-headed character. The only thing I could think of was that her well-to-do upbringing left her with patches of shelteredness that presented themselves as flashes of stupidity. Or something like that.

I figured out who the killer was on exactly page 114, but I didn't get the motive quite right - the ending was more of a shocker to me than it maybe should have been. So, I don't know if I'm looking forward to the mystery aspects of any future books, but one thing I know I'm looking forward to is more Nicholas Brisbane. Although, since so many of Julia's "stupid moments" seemed to happen around him, it's a wonder he's still interested in her. Then again, if it's just animal passion...

Synopsis:

Lady Julia Grey is not altogether shocked when Edward, her husband, collapses and dies shortly thereafter. He'd had bouts of sickness since he was a child, and he'd gotten much worse before he finally died. So, she doesn't know what to think when a mysterious man named Nicholas Brisbane claims that Edward was murdered and that he had been hired by Edward to investigate the threatening letters being sent to him. Julia chooses to ignore Nicholas, until, nearly a year after Edward's death, she discovers one of the letters among Edward's things. By this time, the trail has surely gone stone cold, but Julia, now convinced that Edward was murdered, is determined to find his killer, with or without Nicholas Brisbane's help. Brisbane decides to help Julia so as to keep her from mucking up his investigation, however old it happens to be.

Unfortunately, the investigation casts suspicion on Julia's own household. She is convinced that none of her servants could have killed Edward, and she certainly doesn't think Simon, Edward's dying, bedridden cousin (basically staying under Julia's care until he finally dies), had anything to do with Edward's death. Brisbane isn't nearly so trusting, so it seems that the only way to prove that no one in the household was responsible is to look through everyone's things - if no evidence linking anybody to the murder is found, then no one in the household was responsible. The search does turn up a few unexpected things, but Julia still thinks it's all unrelated to Edward's murder and, for a while, that seems to be true. Unfortunately, Julia lets someone who may have real evidence pertaining to Edward's murder walk away, and she and Brisbane (or, actually, Brisbane, with Julia chasing after him) are forced to enter a gypsy camp to get that evidence. That's when Julia is faced with the shocking revelation that Brisbane is actually half gypsy. Of course, because she's fairly accepting and forward-thinking, she doesn't really care and still thinks Brisbane is sexy in a dangerous, not-quite-comfortable sort of way.

For a long while, Julia assumes that her brother Valerius, who wants badly to be a practicing doctor, had dug up a grave several years ago in order to further his medical studies. Since Valerius has come home with his clothes suspiciously bloody several times, Julia isn't sure what to think about him anymore. However, when she finally confronts him, she learns that Valerius has never stooped to grave robbing and that he's been getting more experience by doctoring prostitutes.

Julia's marriage had not been going well. When she wasn't able to conceive, Edward finally stopped sleeping with her. He got to the point where he rarely acknowledged her as more than a fixture in his life. So, it's upsetting, but not really a surprise, when Julia learns that her husband had been visiting a whorehouse. Since Valerius acts as the doctor for the particular place, he agrees to delicately probe for any information the prostitutes there might have about this side of Edward's life Julia knew nothing about. Through Valerius, Julia meets a prostitute Edward used to spend time with (he only ever talked to her, no sex) and learns something shocking - Edward had sex with the male prostitutes there.

Suddenly, lots of things begin to come together. Edward stopped sleeping with Julia, not because of her apparent barrenness, but because his syphilis, which was dormant before they married (and which Julia knew nothing about), entered the contagious stage and he didn't want to infect her. Edward's apparently worsening sickness and rages weren't necessarily due to his childhood illness, but were probably the result of the progression of his syphilis. A young male servant who had been sick throughout the book is discovered to have been Edward's lover and the one who sent him the threatening notes, which he did in the hopes of scaring Edward into being faithful to him and no longer sleeping with male prostitutes at the whorehouse. Because of Edward, he has syphilis.

There is still evidence that Edward was murdered, poisoned by a condom, in fact, but who's the murderer if it wasn't the person sending the threatening notes? That's where the real shocker comes in - Simon, Edward's dying, bedridden cousin, was both Edward's lover and his killer. He killed Edward out of jealousy, because of all of Edward's various infidelities. Simon was also the one who did the grave robbing Julia thought Valerius had been responsible for. Because Julia confronts Simon alone, he almost manages to burn the both of them alive, but Julia survives with the help of a raven stolen from the Tower of London. Brisbane (who, by the way, has visions that are sometimes hideously painful) tries but is unable to save Simon from the fire.

Commentary:

Like I said, I know the exact point when I figured out who the killer was: page 114. I thought I knew the motive, even if I didn't have a clue about the means. During the scene where Simon and Julia kissed, I thought Simon's words and actions indicated that Simon had fallen in love with Julia while she was still married to Edward, that perhaps he'd even loved her from the beginning but hadn't managed to ask her to marry him before Edward beat him to it. I never even guessed that he and Edward had been lovers.

Even though I thought I had the murder pretty much figured out, something that almost never happens to me, I kept on reading because I loved all of the historical details and I wanted to see what would happen next between Julia and Nicholas Brisbane. So far, unfortunately, Brisbane is, at best, the "punishing kiss" sort - the kind of guy who, if this book were more of a romance than a mystery, would have spent all his time passionately in love, or at least in lust, with Julia, angry at himself for allowing those feelings to exist, and angry at her for inciting those feelings in him. Of course, this is expressed by kisses so hard they bruise and even draw blood. Not exactly my cup of tea, so I hope he gets over that in the next book, because I really do want to be able to get all fangirly over him.

Julia has things I hope she can manage to get over, too. For instance, there are her flashes of stupidity. Naivete is one thing - her social class makes it really easy not to realize all the things that are or could be going on with her servants. I don't even necessarily consider her decision to send Magda away to be stupid. At that point, she had no reason to trust Brisbane to handle things in a delicate way, and she thought that she was protecting her brother by sending Magda away (although she really should have asked Magda who did the grave robbing - of course, the story could have ended much more quickly if she had, which put this in the "disgustingly convenient complication" category). What did annoy me was the multiple times Julia made stupid investigation-related suggestions. I shudder to think that this woman had planned to investigate Edward's murder herself.

Raybourn wasn't just sloppy when she had Julia send Magda away without ever asking Magda more specifically who she had planned to kill because of the grave robbing, she was also sloppy at the part where Julia honestly believes that looking through all her servants' things was somehow the only way to prove their innocence. In reality, there was absolutely no conclusive way Julia could have proved that no one in her household was involved in Edward's murder - a lack of evidence found does not automatically equal innocence, especially a year after the crime was committed.  That was only one of the many stupid things that came up during Julia's "investigation," but I think it's the clearest example of how stupid Julia occasionally got.

One thing I really didn't expect when I checked this book out was the huge number of homosexual relationships in it, most of which aren't revealed until nearly the end of the book. It's revealed fairly early on that a relative of Julia's, her sister (if I'm remembering correctly), is a lesbian and currently in a happy relationship. Nearly all of Julia's family is eccentric (apparently, only Julia and one of her brothers escaped the eccentrism that plagues her family), so none of them seem to mind this. Then near the end, Edward turns out the be gay, and apparently he slept with oodles of guys.  I suppose I could have taken Julia's sister as a hint of things to come, but I didn't really think anything of it at the time, except to be a bit amazed at how accepting her family was.  I don't know if this was due to their overall eccentricism, or if they were just happy she had at least been married to a man once (and a horrible man, at that) and didn't mind what she did after that.  Anyway, by the end of the book it felt like you couldn't read about a character without him turning out to be been gay and one of Edward's former lovers.  In terms of actual numbers, it was only really two characters, but, because it was such a shock (to me, anyway), it felt like more. Edward's general promiscuity helped to increase that impression.

Despite my complaints about Julia's stupidity and the sloppiness of the mystery, I did like this book, for the most part. Julia's "voice" managed to be appealing (this book is written in the first person), even when I found her annoying or aggravating. I wasn't sure what to think of Julia at first - when Edward collapsed, she didn't panic, she accused him of joking, and, not long after he died, she got the idea to sell just about everything and go traveling in Italy. I wasn't getting "grieving widow I should feel sympathy for" out of any of this, but I stuck with the book and got hooked. I do plan on hunting down the next book - hopefully, the hints of romance between Julia and Brisbane will become much less angry (on Brisbane's part) and fearful (on Julia's part - she acts a bit like a deer in headlights around him sometimes). Also, while I'm not necessarily asking for a steamy sex scene, it would be nice if any kissing scenes were described in ways that weren't forgettable and made it a bit more clear that kissing actually happened. In this book, the "punishing kiss" I mentioned earlier happened like so:
"...He did not strike me; instead he did something I had never expected. He reached for me. It was some time before he let me go.

When he did, I was breathing far too fast and I tasted blood on my lips."
I hate it when it takes me a second to figure out that a kiss even happened, and I especially hate it when there's all kinds of sexual tension between two characters, and this is the best description the author can come up with of what happens when the tension becomes something more. Seriously, the kiss between Simon and Julia was described in more detail than this, which is just an icky thought when you consider what Simon was probably thinking during the whole thing.
Read-alikes:
  • Second Sight (book) by Amanda Quick - The first book in Amanda Quick/Jayne Ann Krentz's Arcane Society series.  This particular one may appeal to those who liked Raybourn's book because of the historical setting (not nearly as full of interesting historical details as Raybourn's book, and probably a bit laughable to those who actually know more about this stuff than I do), the whole "paranormal abilities" aspect, the romance and partnership between the main characters, and the suspense.  Basically, Quick's books in general are heavier on romance and lighter on historical information than Silent in the Grave.
  • And Only to Deceive (book) by Tasha Alexander - Like Silent in the Grave, this is the first in a series.  This late Victorian romantic suspense stars Emily, a young widow who only really begins to understand and even love her husband after his death.  Those who'd like another romantic suspense starring a female amateur sleuth might want to try this.  I'll have to add it to my own TBR mountain: Emily and her husband sound like appealing characters.  Unlike Quick's book, this one does, as far as I can tell, pay better attention to historical details and flavor, another aspect that may appeal to those who liked Raybourn's book.
  • Her Royal Spyness (book) by Rhys Bowen - Another historical mystery with romantic aspects, also part of a series, although the historical time period in this case is the 1930s.  Like Julia, Georgie, the main character of this book, is a bit naive about things, but I don't remember her being quite as obviously foolish.  The potential romantic interest isn't around nearly as much in this book as Brisbane is in Silent in the Grave, but I can at least say that he's much less scary and has the potential to be fun.  I haven't read past this first book, but this is another series I'd like to continue sometime.  It'd probably be a good fit for those who like Raybourn's historical details and her book's mystery aspects but wanted something a bit lighter and with romantic aspects that are less unsettling.

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