Deanna Raybourn’s third Veronica Speedwell, Victorian-set mystery finds her prickly, sleuthing pair, Veronica and Stoker, where they’ve settled since book one’s conclusion: in Bishop’s Folly, setting up the Earl of Rosemorran’s museum from his vast, eclectic, esoteric collection. In A Treacherous Curse, their museological endeavours are interrupted by a mystery that tickles their adventurous spirits and curiosity, challenging and deepening their relationship. Unlike my other favourite historical mystery series, C. S. Harris’s Sebastian St. Cyr, it is interesting to note how Raybourn’s sleuthing protagonists are not endowed with a strong sense of justice. They’re driven by a crossword-puzzle-doer’s instincts, the need to solve the quandary, or as Veronica quips, “To investigate one murder is a curiosity. To investigate two is a habit.” This is not by way of criticism. It isn’t fair to compare persimmons with pineapples, but I do like to muse on authors’ world-building and thematic choices. What gives Raybourn’s series moral impetus, at least in these initial volumes, is the revelation of our main characters’ pasts. (In A Treacherous Curse‘s case, Stoker’s is under scrutiny.) Maybe this will change in future volumes? What else informs Raybourn’s series’ moral impetus is the fierce protectiveness and loyalty that Veronica and Stoker (aka Templeton-Vane) hold for each other. There’s romance dearth for romance readers, but enough of a spark to keep me reading, for this and sundry reasons. (I am delighted that Veronica ogles Stoker’s Laocoönian body, while he exhibits near-prudish bashfulness. So much fun in those scenes!)
When A Treacherous Curse opens, Veronica and Stoker are happily bickering away while they focus on their respective areas of expertise at the Earl of Rosemorran’s estate. It isn’t long before news arrives that Stoker’s former best friend, and the man who married his ex-wife, John de Morgan, disappeared in Dover. He was returning to England, with Caroline de Morgan, from the Egyptian Tiverton Expedition he’d served. It also isn’t long before Veronica and Stoker are embroiled in discovering the reasons behind his disappearance, before mysterious sightings of the Egyptian god, Anubis, appear in London, before Stoker’s tormented history with Caroline and John comes calling. But when we first meet V. and Stoker, we are treated to their delightful banter, with lines such as Veronica’s noting: “He curled a handsome lip. ‘Do not invoke ethnography, Veronica. You know how I feel about the social sciences.’ “ As I have my own social science misgivings, I started the novel with a chuckle. I did not experience, however, that glowing sense of engagement and delight that the first volume invoked.
I was not deeply engaged by the novel’s mystery and its revelation/solution had long come to me before I reached the end. I do admit I found Raybourn’s villainess absolutely magnificent and her nod to high melodrama a wonderful reflection of the best of the Victorian penchant for it. I enjoyed the invocation of an Elizabeth Peters-like setting, even from afar.
What I most enjoyed, however, and what will see my return to the series is the furthering of Veronica and Stoker’s relationship. I liked how Raybourn made it a connection that is deep and abiding, but not exactly romantic. Undeclared love is present, but desire is so much under the surface that it isn’t merely a gentle brook, it’s a subterranean stream. There is, first and foremost, Veronica’s fierce understanding of Stoker:
In the months we had known one another, I had come to understand him better than most. Some stories he told me; others I guessed. But there were secrets within him, dark and spiny things that scuttled from the light of day.
It is feminist and refreshing to have the heroine’s eyes constantly on the hero, scrutinizing his physique and psyche, with love, but also with perspicacity and admiration.
Moreover, Veronica cares about Stoker. She sees him as her creation, someone she has nurtured intellectually and freed from bonds that impeded him in the past:
There was a spark of genius in him, but sparks are fragile things, and they need careful attention. I had seen progress in the past months, a reviving of the spirits and the confidence that had been broken to splinters by his experiences. A surge of dislike for Caroline de Morgan threatened to choke me.
In the past two books, Veronica has proudly, and to the reader’s delight, not coddled Stoker, but challenged him, fought with him, gone into danger with him, and matched him brilliant brain cell for brain cell and courage with courage. What Raybourn has added here is the sense that Veronica also recognizes his vulnerabilities. She also hates that anyone could hurt him and if that isn’t love, I don’t know what is.
Because this is very much the story of Stoker’s fall and Veronica-led resurrection (as Veronica eloquently says comparing her response to Stoker over his ex-wife’s, ” … she saw only the scorch marks whilst I saw the phoenix”), we see less of Veronica’s past and vulnerabilities. Yet they are present and just as Veronica watches over Stoker, he watches over her. Without giving away too much, I quote the sole moment of exquisite touch between them:
… he reached out and brushed a fingertip over my hand. It was a tiny thing, that gesture, but the whole world was contained within it – gratitude, partnership, understanding. I had taken lovers around the world, more than a score of them at last count, but Stoker was the nearest thing I had ever known to an actual partner. And I knew better than to ask him for what he could not give.
Now, dear MBRR-reader, you tell me, with as magnificent a central couple as this, wouldn’t you return for more? I admit I wasn’t immediately blown away by Raybourn’s Treacherous Curse, but, by the end, I was panting for the next book. With Miss Austen’s silent assent, I would say Deanna Raybourn’s A Treacherous Curse contains “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Deanna Raybourn’s A Treacherous Curse is published by Berkley (Penguin Random House). It was released on January 16th and may be found in e and dead-tree at your preferred vendor. I received an e-ARC from Berkley, via Netgalley.