I am a sucker for historical novels, especially ones that take place between about 1880 and 1930. It should come as no surprise that Victorian-era romance novels are a particular favorite.
I’m not talking bodice rippers. Tried one of those once. I decided that if sex—and quite literal, totally unnecessary bodice ripping—was the only thing that was going to move the plot (which I wasn’t even sure existed) along, it wasn’t for me.
Last summer, I was trying to find books at the library to read on the bus rides to and from my internship. I happened across Deanna Raybourn’s The Dark Enquiry. The cover blurb made no mention of being part of a series, so I went ahead and read it. There were hints that it was part of a larger series, and that this was not the first book throughout, but it stood very well on its own, and I was not disappointed. Rather, I was intrigued, and wound up looking up the rest of the books from the library, reading them in this order: fifth, first, fourth, third, second.
So, there’s that. They stand on their own.
But what are these books really about, you ask?
Well, Lady Julia Grey, for one. Julia Grey, née March, is the daughter (5th daughter, 9th child of 10) of the extremely progressive, somewhat eccentric 12th Earl March (whose Christian name currently escapes me, though I swear it’s mentioned more than once in the books) and his late wife. The March children themselves all range anywhere from party-line-toeing Tory to flamboyantly… March, as only Marches can be. (And yes, there is at least one play on March hares in the books.) Julia starts off as rather demure, or at least leashed, but it is clear that this is a bit of a strain for her, and that her true nature is far more inquisitive and just generally bold, especially for a woman in the pre-suffrage era.
The series commences with her husband’s murder—not that Julia kills him, though she soon finds out she has more than enough reason to have done so. Of course, this wouldn’t be a proper mystery/romance if this event didn’t bring Nicholas Brisbane, an enigmatic and aloof private investigator, into Julia’s life. Hell, you’re introduced to the man in the first sentence, in conjunction with the death of Julia’s husband. No, he didn’t do it. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that much. Just as it’s not a spoiler to say we all know where things are headed for Julia and Brisbane in the end… even if it takes 3 books to get there.
Raybourn writes with an eye for detail. I don’t know how well her research is actually founded, but she presents an incredibly romantic version of the Victorian era, especially pertaining to its aristocracy. Given that this is in the interest of mood-setting, though, it’s perfectly acceptable in my book. After all, if I’m going to read a ridiculously fun romance, I want it to be just a little over the top.
However, things do get repetitive after a while, I’ll admit. Julia has a bad habit of putting herself into trouble, and not always with the best of intentions. I think she does it sometimes just to piss off (or at least worry) Brisbane, even though she does it under the guise of proving she can handle herself. In a strange twist of irony, this seems to be when people start recognizing her most as a March, with their dual mottos of “Quod habeo habeo” (What I have, I hold) and “Audeo” (I dare—the unofficial March family motto).
Still, it’s a romp, and quite worth it. It will ring true for a lot of people who have large, somewhat meddlesome, very eclectic families. As a series, I give it a 4 (and probably dropping bit by bit). Books 1, 2, and 3 (in chronological order, not in the order I read them) earn about a 5 each, and books 4 and 5 each get about a 4.