There’s a certain kind of novel Miss Bates adores and it appears Juliana Gray has written one in A Most Extraordinary Pursuit. Maybe it’s the summer Miss Bates spent in Greece reading Elizabeth Peters. Maybe it’s the heroines: feral spinsters, independent, prickly, and devoted to their work. A hero who may or may not be “heroic,” a combination 007, Indiana Jones, and Lord Peter Wimsey; he’s ambiguous, as are the heroine’s feelings for him. Nevertheless, hero and heroine must work together to solve a mystery, a mystery set in a locale east of their western European English setting, a place hot and difficult to navigate linguistically and culturally, where the narrative isn’t easy to read, Egypt, India, or Greece. Not since Deanna Raybourn’s first Veronica Speedwell mystery has Miss Bates found and enjoyed a novel of this ilk, not until Gray’s Pursuit.
Our heroine and narrator, Miss Emmeline Rose Truelove, has faithfully served the Duke of Olympia and his Duchess, Penelope, for six years. Emmeline and her employers’ relationship is a close and protective one. Sadly, Emmeline’s beloved Duke died while trout-fishing and his now-Dowager Duchess entrusts her with finding the missing heir, grand-nephew Mr. Maximilian Haywood, off studying Knossian ruins in Crete. Miss Truelove seems to have, at least initially, two companions on her voyage aboard the Duke’s yacht “Isolde” and throughout her journey-pursuit of Mr. Haywood: the charming “reprobate,” Freddie, Marquess of Silverton and Queen Victoria’s finger-wagging, admonishing ghost!
There’s a lot going on in A Most Extraordinary Pursuit: though Silverton and Emmeline arrive in Knossos, Mr. Haywood has disappeared, making a “missing person” the heart of the novel’s mystery. In the meanwhile, the intrepid Miss Truelove continues to receive ghostly visits. Indeed, her exchanges with the judgemental Queen are some of the most entertaining: the queen warning and berating Emmeline about her growing feelings for Silverton. While Silverton and Emmeline devote themselves to finding Maximilian, other strange goings-on are afoot: peculiar figures pursue them; they encounter both helpers and hinderers and often can’t tell one from another on their quest.
Gray also parallels Silverton and Emmeline’s quest with a retelling of Ariadne, Theseus, and the Minotaur’s myth. The myth is essential to solving Maximilian’s mystery, as are Einstein’s ideas of time and space (the year being 1906, the “Annus Mirabilis” papers published in ’05). Though Gray brings these three narrative threads together beautifully to resolve the mystery, she leaves the reader’s beloved Emmeline and charming Silverton dangling romantically. If the reader is looking for an HEA, she’s has to settle for “pending”, or “in potentia”.
Gray’s mythical and Einsteinian threads aren’t as compelling as her characterization: Emmeline’s cool yet also passionate spinster’s “voice”, Freddie’s languidly useless aristocratic demeanor hiding lethal agent’s skills and soft heart, especially for the prickly Miss Truelove (and yes, her name is significant!), Gray’s superb dialogue, and descriptions of the sublime, wild settings of Crete, Naxos, Skyros, and aboard the “Isolde”. Emmeline and her exchanges with Silverton, the spectral Queen, and herself are what made the novel great for Miss B. Philosophically, Gray makes Emmeline-Silverton opposites; in their banter and disagreements, we learn about them. Here is one of Miss B’s favourite early exchanges as Silverton and Emmeline debate the merits of discussing physical love:
” … Just because your rigid old society has decided that certain subjects – sexual relations, for example – are dirty things that must not be discussed.”
I said quietly, “You couldn’t be more mistaken, your lordship. We do not restrain ourselves from discussing human love because it is dirty.”
“Because it is sacred.”
Incipient in this exchange are the novel’s themes and the nature of Emmeline and Silverton’s relationship. Silverton’s prodigal ways hide a serious, protective, but not overbearing alpha-male. But his Lotharian proclivities are unacceptable to Emmeline. The novel’s mystery-resolution, however, makes Emmeline’s statement significant and true. Emmeline and Silverton’s relationship’s near-resolution sees Silverton make an uncharacteristic judgement call. Miss B. was most nonplussed, but she’ll allow you, dear reader, to decide for yourself whether Silverton deserves Emmeline or not.
The novel’s pleasures, at least for Miss B. and of which she’ll try to convince you in these paragraphs, are the sharp, witty, compelling exchanges. Silverton is always admiring of Emmeline, protective of Emmeline, but also throws light on her priggishness:
“Why, Truelove. What a deliciously devious mind you’re hiding, behind that mask of oppressive piety.”
“I am only doing my job, Lord Silverton.”
At the same time, Miss Bates loves Emmeline’s flat reply, her refusal to rise to Silverton’s bait. And, Emmeline can, delightfully, give as good as she gets:
“I simply appreciate beauty, Lord Silverton.”
“You don’t appreciate my beauty,” he said.
“Why should I? You worship it well enough without my help.”
And, showing Silverton up as he smooths his self-satisfaction’s feathers:
“Experience, Truelove. Experience and training. Enough of those, and you don’t need any brains.”
“That’s fortunate for you.”
Yet, neither Emmeline, nor the reader, can resist Silverton. He may be decadent, but he is also loyal, caring, and will put himself in danger to protect Emmeline. He respects her intelligence and sheer capability. He wants her to be free and admires her mind, wit, self-reliance. He thinks she’s magnificent and we agree.
Queen Victoria’s ghost and Emmeline’s conversations with her serve as the voice of Emmeline’s priggish conscience. As Miss Bates already mentioned, they are some of the best bits, evidence the following:
She was wagging a finger now, a plump and unwrinkled foremast that bore a large sapphire ring. “He has drawn you into banter, and his conduct in defending you on the road to Athens won your sympathy. You slept against his shoulder afterward.”
“I did not.”
“I saw you.”
Miss Bates’s favourite line goes to the Queen’s spectre: “He is a danger to your moral serenity.” Miss B. guffawed at that. What can be a greater danger and delight to a life of “moral serenity” as a tall, broad, blue-eyed giant to make you laugh, challenge you, and share adventures? And how clever and meta of Gray to have sour-faced old Queen Victoria render judgement on “banter,” one of the romance narrative’s most important and pleasurable elements. Miss Bates can’t wait for the next Truelove-Silverton adventure. (According to Gray’s website, it looks like it’s coming this summer.)
Juliana Gray’s A Most Extraordinary Pursuit is about how love transcends time, how we are ever connected to the dead, how to answer the call to adventure, how to use the heart and mind to bring equilibrium to a world out of whack, and how all of this can be accomplished by one smart, persistent spinster … with a little help from a charming rogue and protector. With Miss Austen, Miss Bates finds in A Most Extraordinary Pursuit “no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Juliana Gray’s A Most Extraordinary Pursuit is published by Berkley Books. It was released in October 2016 and may be found at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Berkley, via Netgalley.