As Miss Bates discussed elsewhere, she was a fan of Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey mysteries. She enjoyed Lady J.’s cool, independent demeanor and was in love with Nicholas Brisbane, Julia’s sometime-partner, occasional-antagonist, at-long-last husband, enigma-in-an-alpha-hero. Her quibble remains: long on long-winded mystery, short on romance. And then … this … Raybourn’s new historical mystery series, with a delightful dose of romance, the début Veronica Speedwell mystery, A Curious Beginning. Set in Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Year, Raybourn’s murder mystery leaves behind the distancing characterization of Lady Julia and Brisbane to revel in an endearing heroine and hero, poignant back stories, humour and, dare Miss Bates say it, sentiment.
Miss Veronica Speedwell, 25, buries her Aunt Nell Harbottle in Little Byfield, England. Veronica is irrepressible and intrepid: a world-adventuring lepidopterist, sexually uninhibited, no-nonsense, and fiercely independent. She is nonplussed when Aunt Nell’s Wren Cottage is ransacked and finds herself in the protective hands of the kindly, mysterious Baron Maximilian von Stauffenbach.The Baron travels with her to London and leaves her in the protective custody of his friend Stoker, a taxidermist with a workshop on London’s docks, whose robust musculature, piratical eye-patch, blue eyes, and wild Beethovenian black hair stir Veronica’s womanly desires. But Veronica lives by the rule never to take an English lover. Once Stoker growls and snarls, only a tad friendlier than Huxley, his bull dog, sparks fly and, to Raybourn’s credit, flicker, sparkle, and burn bright, depending on the poignancy, or comedy of Veronica and Stoker’s scenes.
Veronica’s first thought upon meeting Stoker is “Hephaestus at his forge”. Stoker is a man, as Veronica concludes, with a “mind full of secrets and sorrows”, a painful, violent past, an estranged family. Stoker’s also a first-class curmudgeon. He lives alone, never seeing friends, or family, labouring at creating his taxidermical pièce de resistance, a giant pachyderm. Stoker’s someone who doesn’t want his peace disturbed. If there’s one thing Veronica manages, it’s that. Veronica is, like Miss Bates, loquacious to a fault. Once the Baron departs, Ver0nica comes at Stoker with his most dreaded assault weapon – words. His begrudging acceptance of her presence turns to his first impression of her suffer-no-fools tongue: ” ‘I smoked opium once. It felt like listening to you, only rather more mundane.’ ” Day’s light doesn’t redeem Veronica’s volubility as Stoker is beset by Veronica’s plans to find the killer(s) behind the Baron’s murder: “He dropped his head into his hands. ‘Why must you argue before I have even had my tea? So many words.’ ” (Yes, the Baron is murdered and his death is bound with Veronica’s mysterious birth. She was an illegitimate foundling raised by two adoptive spinster sisters.) Miss Bates guffawed and didn’t stop, except when she cried, until she tapped the final, glorious page of Raybourn’s Curious Beginning.
With the Baron’s demise, Stoker and Veronica embark on a journey to discover his murderer: because the Baron was Stoker’s dear friend and because he’s bound up with Veronica’s origins. What Miss Bates loved were the reasons behind the reasons, so to speak, and they were complex and fascinating. Stoker, for one, carries a mysterious past, a suggestion of something personally tragic and professionally disgraced. He is an aristocrat, Revelstoke Templeton-Vane, a naturalist; his mysterious tattoos tell stories about where he’s been and done. Unlike Stoker’s sadness and withdrawal from the world, Veronica’s spirit of adventure and curiosity and the possibility of learning her birth-parents’ identity spur her to join forces with Stoker. Their adventures include a circus show (with a harrowing knife-throwing incident), a gothic mansion, a friendship with an absent-minded scholar-aristocrat and his long-suffering, brilliant mathematician sister, a dubious detective, a variety of nefarious characters, the royal family, and Irish home rule. The pacing is terrific and mystery compelling. What touched Miss Bates most was the hero and heroine’s vulnerability and loneliness, well hidden behind eccentrically brilliant minds.
Veronica and Stoker’s glorious bickering banter delighted Miss Bates. Unlike Julia and Nicholas, Raybourn – thanks be to the Reading Gods – didn’t separate these two. They squabbled and sparred and delighted Miss Bates to no end. Even a topic as prosaic as dressing to embark on their adventure precipitated this delight: ” ‘Have you a neckcloth?’ He rummaged in the pocket for a moment, then drew out a pathetic little scrap of black silk. ‘I have pen wipes nicer than that. Never mind, I will attend to it.’ ” Veronica is so splendidly officious with Stoker and he “takes it like a man”: oh, he blusters and protests, but she is clearly the leader and he is happy to follow her lead, as long as he’s in control of her safety. He is such a terrific combination of officer and gentleman, scholar and friend. Veronica and Stoker are friends and companions in a way that was lacking from Julia and Nicholas’s relationship, no matter how sexy and compelling they were.
Veronica, though she manages and torments Stoker, cares for him. Her esprit for adventure and ferreting truth are infectious. Somehow, she senses, early on, this is a man who needs a resurrection: “I felt – not for the first time – that the fellow I had met was a shadow of what he had once been. The question remained, was the damage irreparable? Life had broken him, but could he be mended?” Part of the beauty of A Curious Beginning is how companionship, a shared love of justice, friendship and camaraderie transform our hero and heroine. They learn to respect and care for one another; Stoker comes to admire Veronica, for her mind, her ethics, and and her willingness to seek truth and see justice done even when it means her life and sense of self will be altered.
In Veronica and Stoker, Raybourn honours a trope and playfully reverses it too. Veronica, young as she is to Stoker’s early 30s, is sexually appetitive and open to his charmant prudery and blushing shyness. He is romanticism to her pragmatism. He is passion to her dispassion and when this is coupled with sharp tongues and gritting teeth, it makes for wonders such as: ” ‘One ought to employ order and method to a murder investigation.’ I looked at him closely. ‘Perhaps this is why you are a failure. You are far too impulsive and lacking in discipline. Oh, do not fuss. You will give yourself an apoplexy. It was simply an observation’ He had started to storm at me but shut his mouth again on a hard snap of the teeth.” Nothing is better than the following exchange: ” ‘Heavens, Stoker. What did you expect? I asked for the truth and you have given as much as you feel comfortable sharing. Furthermore, I have discovered that whether you like it or not, you are a gentleman. And, I suspect, a romantic.’ He snorted. ‘A romantic?’ ‘Indeed … While as a pragmatist, I do not always understand romanticism, I respect it.’ ” In Raybourn’s A Curious Beginning, dear readers, we have the “beginning of a beautiful friendship,” a partnership such as the rivalry-prone Julia and Nicholas could not enjoy, not if their natures were to stay true.
Veronica characterizes her and Stoker’s relationship oh-so-aptly-and-appealingly: “We were stalwart companions at arms, partners in adventure.” And tenderly, gently, and humorously sexy too. Veronica/Raybourn winks at romance readers and sticks a tongue in cheek when she says of Stoker: “For those of us [that would be we who love our rom] who liked our men well roughened, his appearance was the fulfillment of a lifetime’s dreaming of pirates and ne’er-do-well rogues.” As for Stoker, clenched fists resisting a grab at Veronica, a clutch of her hand, a lovely, tender figure in comparing her eyes to the purple wings of a rare butterfly, our Stoker is a goner for our heroine. Nought is spoken; all is dormant and waiting, as Veronica says of Stoker: “I wanted to know everything about him, but I felt like Schliemann standing upon the buried walls of Troy. The truth was there, waiting to be unearthed”. Miss Bates can’t wait to read what the next book in the series holds for Stoker and Veronica.
Deanna Raybourn’s A Curious Beginning is as much journey of self-discovery as murder mystery, buddy road romance, with a serious dash of love and friendship, as it is historical whodunit. Raybourn leaves so many questions unanswered and yet Miss Bates didn’t feel cheated. Veronica and Stoker have so much more in them, even while A Curious Beginning was utterly gratifying in and of itself. All that’s left for Miss Bates are two wishes: one, that her readers will read the marvelous A Curious Beginning and return to comment on their own love for the novel; and, of course, that Raybourn find her muse to pen more of Veronica and Stoker. With Miss Austen, Miss Bates says of Deanna Raybourn’s A Curious Beginning (and it burns that Miss B. has to use her top-rating, but honesty and integrity above all for her dear readers), “you have bewitched me,” Pride and Prejudice.
Deanna Raybourn’s A Curious Beginning is published by NAL Penguin. It has been available since September 1st and Miss Bates’ only regret is that she didn’t read it sooner. You, dear reader, may do so immediately by visiting your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is eternally grateful to NAL Penguin for an e-ARC, via Edelweiss.