Though I’m no fan of the new stylized covers, Freeman’s Lady’s Guide to Gossip and Murder WAS pink and I love pink as much as a murder mystery set in late Victorian times among the aristocratic and privileged. If only there’d been a murder at Downton … (well, there was, but it was in a hotel room). I thought Freeman’s plot convoluted, but I wanted to find another historical murder mystery series to follow, as if I didn’t already have quite a few.
Ah, the complicated plotting: young, widowed, single mother, Lady Harleigh, American Frances Price by birth, aristocratic British by marriage of convenience, much like Lady Grantham, is our amateur sleuth. When the novel opens, we learn Frances has refused marriage to her charming neighbour and partner in sleuthing (does he work for the Home Office?), George Hazelton. Frances lives with Rose, her seven-year-old daughter; recently affianced sister, Lily; Aunt Hetty, and the comic-relief, klutzy, American heiress, Charlotte Deaver (left to Frances’s care by her globe-trotting, toy-boy-collecting mother). Frances has a lively social life, now she’s out of mourning, and a wide circle of friends, one of whom is Charles Evingdon, a harmless, handsome, air-headed aristocrat. Frances has tried to set Charles up with one of her friends, Mary Archer. Sadly, Mary is murdered and Charles is implicated. With George’s help, Frances extricates Charles from the police. However, as she, George, and their coterie of friends, including Charles, learn more about Mary Archer, things are curiouser and curiouser.
Like Frances, Mary is a widow, but one of greatly straitened financial circumstances. Mary’s widow’s weeds and circumspect life reveal themselves to be anything but to Frances and George. They discover that Mary was a collector of from potentially embarrassing to surely illegal secrets on the part of many in English high society. How was Mary going to use this information and who might kill her to prevent her from exposing them? George and Frances, Charles and Charlotte, as well as Inspector Delaney work together and apart to find how Mary’s secrets, personal and in her possession, led to her demise.
Freeman’s Lady’s Guide to Gossip and Murder had the accoutrements to make me love it. An 1899 setting, practically Downton (yes, I was an unabashed fan-girl), a potential romance in Frances and George, English setting, aristocratic antics, comeuppances, and a modicum of Frances-George banter. It was, however, so very very plotty, to the detriment of my feeling any sympathy, or liking for the characters. Not that I disliked them; they were flat. And yet, there were moments when Frances’s connection to the RIP Mary, as a fellow widow who has to make her way in the world, was expressed with elegance and sympathy. Take for example, Frances’s comment about how Mary chose to make a living: “A woman would give a great deal for that sense of independence and self-sufficiency. Mary chose a way to support herself by making use of her skills … I might not approve, but I certainly understood. And I was in no position to condemn.” I wish there was MORE of George and Frances and more of these moments of connection and introspection. That being said, if you love a plotty murder mystery, smoothly, though not charmingly written, this may be the novel for you. I will, however, pass on any others in future. With Miss Austen, we say A Lady’s Guide to Gossip and Murder offers “tolerable comfort,” Mansfield Park.
Dianne Freeman’s A Lady’s Guide to Gossip and Murder is published by Kensington Books. It was released on June 25 and may be found at your preferred vendor. I received an e-ARC from Kensington Books, via Netgalley.