Oy, as if I need another historical mystery with romantic elements to follow, but this cross-genre is appealing to me … so, here I go again with Andrea Penrose’s Wrexford and Sloane Regency-set, slow-burn romance and mystery series. Add this to the pile with Harris’s St. Cyr, Raybourn’s Speedwell, and Ashley’s Holloway.
Murder At Kensington Palace is the series third and I’m sorry I didn’t read the first two. The present volume was so satisfying, however, that it made me an insta-fan and regretful not to have discovered it from the get-go. As with Harris, Raybourn, and Ashley, Penrose creates engaging, easy-to-love protagonists. Like Ashley especially, she fashions an irresistible band-of-sleuths ethos, with a circle of friends, servants, street-people and -children, Bow Street runners, an eagle-eyed, sharp-tongued aged aunt, aiding and abetting the primary protags, compelling, lovable characters in their own right. Wrexford and Sloane are Lord and Lady “statussed,” but their world goes way beyond the ton.
Wrexford is urbane, handsome, sharp-tongued and a chemist. His valet and lab assistant, Tyler, with whom he shares antagonistic banter, is one of the band of truth- and justice-seekers. Wrexford is often accompanied by his I-pretend-I’m-dumb friend Kit Sheffield and Basil Henning. Charlotte’s household is even more eccentric. Charlotte is a widow, who had run away to Italy with her art instructor and left her aristocratic family behind. She moonlights as a political cartoonist under the pseudonym A. J. Quill. Her street persona, for when she disguises as a street urchin to sleuth and nose the truth of a murder, alternates between Magpie and Phoenix. Charlotte lives with Wrexford’s blunt-tongued, knife-wielding cook, McClellan, and two adopted, adorable, hilarious street urchins, Raven and Hawk, aka Thomas Ravenwood Sloane and Alexander Hawksley Sloane, and affectionately dubbed “the Weasels” by Wrexford.
Kensington Gardens‘ mystery centres on the murder of Charlotte’s beloved childhood cousin, Cedric, Lord Chittenden; the accused, his twin brother, Nicholas Locke. When Charlotte, with Wrexford’s insistent help, sets out to exonerate Nicholas, she contends with long-buried feelings about the life she left behind and how to reemerge as Lady Charlotte when she’s lived incognito as plain old Charlotte Sloane for years. It is key, however, to infiltrate the ton to help Nicholas. She calls on her Aunt Alison, who proves to be as cool and witty as the Dowager Countess of Grantham, without Violet’s noblesse oblige ‘tude. I thought the mystery itself was fascinating until the resolution. Cedric and Nicholas were mixed up in scientific intrigue and elixir-of-life nonsense, making Wrexford’s knowledge and knife-edge intelligence key to murder’s solution. He is inquiry to the quackery that was going on at the time. But the resolution reminded me of a mad scientist Hollywood b-movie scenario. It turned out laughable where Penrose aimed for dramatic?
Whatever “meh” I thought of the mystery, my insta-love for Wrexford, Sloane, and Co. remained steady throughout. I loved them from the moment Charlotte muttered to Wrexford: ” ‘What a pair we are … Prickly, guarded, afraid of making ourselves vulnerable.’ ” Afraid initially. As the narrative builds, Wrexford and Charlotte’s slow-burn romance flickers and flares, teasing the reader and making her yearn for more. They have three near-kisses that ratcheted the tension horribly and yet deliciously. They also share one of the sexiest waltzes I’ve ever read. And how irresistible is our Wrexford introduction? Note: “The earl settled himself on the sofa, all well-tailored broad shoulders and long-legged elegance.” Perfection in that “well-tailored” incongruity to his “broad shoulders”. And Charlotte noticing how, in pursuit of the truth for her, he neglects getting a haircut. Wrexford does a lot of sexy running-fingers through his long, dark hair.
The slow burn, however, is beautifully maintained as the background to Wrexford and Charlotte’s friendship, with affectionate quips like this one: “A faint smile tugged at his lips. ‘We are, I suppose, well-acquainted with each other’s eccentricities and have learned to put up with them.’ ” And heart-wrenching bits like “She managed a shaky exhale and allowed herself to sink back against the pillows. ‘I’m very grateful for –‘ ‘Love doesn’t require gratitude,’ he said.” And then the tension flaring with the deep love they have for each other, yet unspoken and dormant as it is: ” ‘Without you, I would have given up long ago.’ ‘I would do anything for you,’ he said softly. ‘Would you?’ Charlotte set down the book and box of cards. ‘Then please … ‘ She moved a step closer and reached up to press her palm to his cheek. ‘Don’t be so hard on yourself. I can’t bear to see you trapped in such shadows.’ ” I loved it and them.
Penrose’s other great strength, other than the yummy romance, is the love of friends and family Charlotte and Wrexford built around them: “She had somehow gathered a mismatched circle of friends around her during the past few years. They had become very dear to her. Once again, she was aware of how frighteningly vulnerable she felt because of it. A solitary existence was far safe, uncomplicated by the complexities of emotions. Danger now held more consequences than the question of her own measly survival. The boys depended on her … ” Ah, the boys, Wrexford’s beloved “Weasels” (how tender is it that he has found them a tutor? how loving is Charlotte’s heart-weakness for them? teaching them to draw, muttering motherly threats about “no jam tarts,” which McLennan affectionately bakes for them, hugging them and giving them a world of love and care and knowledge where they had none). Raven and Hawk are funny, smart, and vulnerable in how much they love Charlotte and both love and are in awe of Wrexford. In the end, the most winning aspect of Penrose’s wonderful series is the conclusion Charlotte and Wrexford come to together and apart, that love is primary, makes life worth living, and deserves our greatest care and protection. And why I await the next book in the series as I do Raybourn’s, Harris’s, and Ashley’s. With Miss Austen, we find, in Murder At Kensington Palace, “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Andrea Penrose’s Murder At Kensington Palace is published by Kensington Books. It was released in September 2019 and may be found at your preferred vendors. I am grateful to Kensington Books for an e-galley, via Netgalley.