Review: Andrea Penrose’s MURDER AT THE ROYAL BOTANIC GARDENS (Wrexford & Sloane Mystery #5)

Murder_Royal_Botanic_GardensContinuing my journey to reader-recovery (see my previous two posts), I read the latest in another favourite historical mystery series, Penrose’s Regency-set Wrexford and Sloane, Murder At the Royal Botanic Gardens. I read it steadily over the past two days (yet one more way to stave off the reality of returning to work after a gloriously idle summer; with major de-cluttering, but still). I love this series for the same reason I read others: the characters, the characters, the characters…and their relationships.

Set in a time of rigid class divisions, Penrose’s series is a wonderful fantasy of cross-class found family. At its heart are the Earl of Wrexford, dark, brooding, powerful, volatile at the series start and Lady Charlotte Sloane (aka skewering cartoonist A. J. Quill), disinherited, disgraced, and thus free of social convention; this, she and Lord Wrexford have in common, which is why their growing love is as much built on a shared upholding of justice, defending the underdog, and prizing people’s worth on merit, not birth as attraction, compatibility, shared purpose, and companionship. Along the way, they have picked up and created their found family, as Charlotte notes in the present volume “love was the true bond that tied all of her odd little family together”: valet and co-sleuth Gideon Tyler; formidable “housekeeper” McClellan; two adopted “guttersnipes”, “Weasels” Raven and Hawk; brilliant mathematician Lady Cordelia Mansfield; “coroner” Basil Henning; Bow Street Runner Griffin; Wrexford’s friend and Cordelia’s business partner, Christopher “Kit” Sheffield; and my favourite, Charlotte’s Aunt Alison, the dowager Countess of Peake. Together they band to expose baddies, putting themselves in mortal danger and always coming through for each other.

The key to a great series, like Penrose’s, Montclair’s, Harris’s, or Raybourn’s, is world-building whose lodestone is character+history. Characters evolve, Montclair’s did this beautifully in the latest Sparks and Bainbridge, but stay recognizably beloved; the “history” may comprise one era, but highlights changes and/or different aspects of it, Harris’s latest Sebastian St. Cyr did this wonderfully. History is conveyed, or implicated by the crime, usually a murder. Penrose’s latest is centred on the murder of a botanist and revolves around early 19th-century figures who advanced the scientific study and nomenclature of plants, Alexander von Humboldt, for example, though he doesn’t figure in the story; others do.

Quoting the back-cover copy may help clarify a complex mystery plot:

The wedding of the Earl of Wrexford and Lady Charlotte Sloane is not-to-be-missed, but the murder of a brilliant London scientist threatens their plans—and their lives…The upcoming marriage of the Earl of Wrexford and Lady Charlotte Sloane promises to be a highlight of the season, if they can first untangle—and survive—a web of intrigue and murder involving the most brilliant scientific minds in Regency London…

One advantage of being caught up in a whirl of dress fittings and decisions about flower arrangements and breakfast menus is that Charlotte Sloane has little time for any pre-wedding qualms. Her love for Wrexford isn’t in question. But will being a wife—and a Countess—make it difficult for her to maintain her independence—not to mention, her secret identity as famed satirical artist A.J. Quill?
Despite those concerns, there are soon even more urgent matters to attend to during Charlotte and Wrexford’s first public outing as an engaged couple. At a symposium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, a visiting botanist suffers a fatal collapse. The traces of white powder near his mouth reveal the dark truth—he was murdered. Drawn into the investigation, Charlotte and the Earl learn of the victim’s involvement in a momentous medical discovery. With fame and immense fortune at stake, there’s no shortage of suspects, including some whose ruthlessness is already known. But neither Charlotte nor her husband-to-be can realize how close the danger is about to get—or to what lengths this villain is prepared to go . . .

In pursuing the villain(s) who murdered Josiah Becton, Charlotte, Wrexford, and their motley crew of co-sleuths, encounter motives of corruption and exploitation. The mystery reads like a maze, where one lead ends in a dead-end, another begins, until the “dastards” are foiled in a stupendously suspenseful scene on the night-time Thames, where our heroes and heroines have to brave freezing water to thwart an international crime, catch the villains, and save the day. Which they do. Of course.

I was fascinated with the botanical detail and held my breath during suspenseful scenes, but mostly I was touched by how Penrose made the bonds among her characters strong, bonds of love, companionship, and care. It is a theme that crops up over and over again and centres the danger of sleuthing in the bedrock of mutual care and affection. Here is Wrexford on the Weasels:

The boy slipped down from his stool–a little too enthusiastically, he observed. Like moths drawn inexorably toward a flame, both Hawk and Raven had no fear of flying straight into the maw of danger. He would have to have a talk with them about tempering their devil-may-care actions. Especially as they would soon be an official family, not merely individuals linked together by love. Love. A word that never came easily to his tongue. Funny how it no longer stuck in his craw…

Wrexford and Charlotte’s love and care in this exchange:

“…please don’t suggest that I can choose to conveniently turn away from it.” Charlotte couldn’t keep the brittleness out of her voice. “A tiny step here, a small turn there, and before you know it, one’s moral compass has lost all sense of direction”

“True north is etched indelibly on your heart,” he replied softly. “You’ll never lose your way between Right and Wrong. And I think you know by now that I would never, ever ask you to compromise your principles.” She closed her eyes for an instant. “

Oh, fie, Wrexford–it’s not you I’m questioning. It’s myself. There are so many complications to consider, and I can’t help but worry–“

“Uncertainties are always part of life. We shall deal with them as they arise.” Wrexford caught her hand and gave it a squeeze.

Charlotte echoes the sentiment on Wrexford’s behalf in the following:

“I should have told Bethany that I wasn’t free to assist with an unfortunate incident in the conservatory. I saw you were about to seek me out, and yet I went with him.” Wrexford drew in a measured breath. “That was a mistake.”

“A mistake to follow your conscience?” she asked.

Finally a twitch of his lips. “I don’t have a conscience. I tend to act on ill-tempered impulses.”

“Bollocks,” she uttered. “You spoke earlier of a moral true north. Your heart is unerringly drawn to that same point on the compass.”

Charlotte and Wrexford’s love for and commitment to each other (with nice banter thrown in) are obvious in these exchanges, as is another element essential to the mystery: an adherence to a “moral compass”. (It would be a great load of fun if Penrose and Harris penned a few scenes together, given their series share both a historical era and an ethos, with Charlotte and Wrexford sleuthing with Sebastian and Hero!) A new Wrexford and Sloane comes out at the end of September and I look forward to it as I do to every addition to this great series. With Miss Austen, we agree, Murder In the Royal Botanic Gardens is evidence of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.

Andrea Penrose’s Murder At the Royal Botanic Gardens is published by Kensington Books. I am grateful for an e-galley offered by Kensington, via Netgalley.

4 thoughts on “Review: Andrea Penrose’s MURDER AT THE ROYAL BOTANIC GARDENS (Wrexford & Sloane Mystery #5)

  1. I’m glad that your reader-recovery is progressing well :-). This book also kick-started mine at the beginning of the summer. Up until then, it was a dismal reading year for me. I hope that your return to work in the fall goes well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yup, these historical mysteries with smidgens of romance are a favourite subgenre and they do elicit that reader’s sigh.

      I’m reading the latest Ruth Galloway mystery, well, since yesterday. And were it not for Zoom meetings, I would have been done. It’s an inhale in one go kind of book. They’ve all been like this. I highly rec this series. Alas, the next book in the series, the 15th, will be the last… 😦

      We’ve had a bit of a reprieve from The Return this week, thanks to some construction, but it’s all over on Monday and we start bright and early on site. Thank you for your good wishes! I hope the rest of your reading year is fantabulous!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is one series I am up to date on, so I am eagerly awaiting the next one. It’s so much fun to see the characters continuing to develop, especially as the Weasels grow up. Aunt Alison is a wonderful addition to the “gang”.
    I just finished the second Electra McDonnell mystery, “The Key to Deceit”, which followed “A Peculiar Combination”. Wow, it was great! Especially the last few chapters which built to a very exciting climax, I was on the edge of my seat(or pillow, more accurately since I read in bed),


    1. I know, it’s bittersweet, I so enjoyed it and now it’s waiting, waiting, waiting…though this particular series has a new volume coming out at the end of the Sept.!

      I have both of those the TBR: I hope this pesky thing called work will still give me some reading time to start the series!
      (I read in bed too. 😉 )

      Liked by 1 person

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