REVIEW: A Treacherous Curse by Deanna Raybourn
Dear Ms. Raybourn:
This is the third in the Veronica Speedwell mystery series, and the fourth Deanna Raybourn title I’ve read. (In addition to the first two books in this series, I read the first Lady Julia Grey mystery, Silent in the Grave. I do plan to get back to that series at some point.) I think these books are developing nicely on the mystery front – this one had the most engrossing mystery of the three for me (though it faltered a bit at the end). In terms of development of the main characters and their relationship, I think it needs to start moving a bit faster.
Veronica Speedwell is a highly atypical Victorian woman, being an adventure-seeking lepidopterist (butterfly expert) who has traveled the world in search of specimens and taken several lovers along the way. In book one she met up with disgraced aristocrat Revelstoke Templeton-Vane, otherwise known as Stoker. They live platonically (sigh) on the grounds of the estate of a benefactor, sorting through items for a proposed museum. (Stoker’s specialty is taxidermy.) In the first chapters of A Treacherous Curse, Veronica and Stoker are summoned to the home of their sometime ally/sometime adversary, Sir Hugh Montgomerie of the Special Branch of Scotland Yard.
Sir Hugh is laid up at home with a cold but needs to bring the two up to speed on some recent developments that are relevant to them (well, to Stoker, specifically). A party has just returned from an archaeological dig in Egypt with the mummy and grave goods of the previously undiscovered Princess Ankheset.
The group, now composed of Sir Leicester Tiverton, his wife and daughter. and his assistant Patrick Fairbrother, was once larger. A member of the expedition, Jonas Fowler, fell ill and died in Egypt. Then a married couple, John and Caroline de Morgan, absconded from the dig, allegedly with a very valuable diadem belonging to the princess. The Morgans were traced to Dover, where John de Morgan mysteriously disappeared after spending the night in a boarding house. Caroline has been questioned by the police but won’t talk.
In Egypt, the dig had been plagued by sightings of a mysterious figure dressed to look like the Egyptian god Anubis; this and the death of Fowler led to rumors of a curse on the expedition.
All this is germane because Caroline is Stoker’s ex-wife and John his former best friend. The two ditched a deathly ill Stoker in a South American jungle and hotfooted back to England, where Caroline obtained a divorce by telling lurid stories of Stoker’s cruelty. He thus made his way back to England both personally betrayed by the two people closest to him and with his reputation in tatters. Stoker still hasn’t recovered from these blows. Now Montgomerie has to tell Stoker that newspapers will be making hay of his connection to the case. It doesn’t help that the previous year, Stoker encountered John de Morgan on a London street and beat him within an inch of his life.
So, to avoid having Stoker’s reputation publicly besmirched again, he and Veronica set out to find John de Morgan. Their search first involves meeting the Tivertons – the seemingly cheerful Sir Leicester, his dignified, half-Egyptian second wife, and his sullen teenage daughter. They also meet the assistant Patrick Fairbrother, who Veronica takes a flirtatious liking to.
Veronica’s and Stoker’s investigation leads them to an American, Horus Stihl, and his son Henry; Stihl had previously been an expedition partner (and apparently the deep pockets) of Sir Leicester’s in previous years, but they’d fallen out the year before this last expedition.
Things become further complicated when the ghostly Anubis begins to make appearances around London, and a tabloid-style reporter named J.J. Butterworth breathlessly details both the arrival of the Egyptian “curse” in London and Stoker’s lurid past, infuriating Veronica.
And of course, there’s one last player who eventually must be confronted: Stoker’s ex-wife Caroline, now staying with her parents in London and affecting a very wounded and damaged air to keep the authorities at bay. She turns out to be, not surprisingly, a piece of work.
As I said, I found the mystery fairly engrossing. There were enough players and motives to keep me on my toes, and I didn’t figure out the solution ahead of time. When it was revealed, I found it slightly disappointing, for no reason I can specifically articulate. I guess I was just expecting something more dramatic and byzantine.
Aside from the mystery, the book continued to develop Veronica and Stoker’s unusual relationship, albeit slowly. At times it seems like they’re almost sibling-like in their interactions; they don’t manifest constant sexual tension. (And this isn’t necessarily a *bad* thing – endless unresolved sexual tension gets old quick in stand-alone books, never mind series.) Their roles are a little reversed (especially for the era) in that Veronica is very matter-of-fact about sex, whereas Stoker has a whiff of the repressed Victorian gentleman about him (he’s been known to blush). But the clues to a deeper connection are subtle but definitely present – Veronica’s jealousy over Caroline, Stoker’s acceptance of Veronica as perhaps the one person he truly trusts in the world.
Look, I know it’s tricky, in a book series as in a television series, to take the plunge and have the main characters start a romantic relationship. Certainly in television it’s been blamed for shows going downhill – when that tension is released there’s nothing to look forward to. But…it just feels like Veronica and Stoker’s relationship is moving at a glacial pace. If they aren’t meant to ever get together, then that’s fine – though then I’d like to see Veronica get some other nookie (she does admire and flirt with other men on a regular basis, which I like). I’d rather not be teased with the possibility of Veronica/Stoker if nothing’s going to come from it. So far, in three books, we’ve had one kiss, I think, which Stoker apparently doesn’t remember on account of being drunk. Further, he gives every appearance of still pining for Caroline. It’s times like these that not getting Stoker’s POV is a real pain, because his continued longing for someone who is so unworthy of his love seems perverse.
Further, there are a couple of moments in this book when something is on the very verge of happening – not physical but an acknowledgement of their emotion connection – and then suddenly someone comes in or something else ruins the moment. That kind of teasing of the reader should be employed with great care, I think.
I do enjoy the humor in these books; they aren’t a laugh riot, but Veronica has a sense of the absurd, as when Henry Stihl begins to question her about her knowledge of the underground systems of London:
I blinked at him in surprise. It is seldom that a gentleman raises the subject of sewage so early in a conversation, I reflected.
So far my grades for previous Deanna Raybourn books have been high Bs or low B+s. I think I’ll give this a high B+ and if we could only get a little more development in the Veronica/Stoker relationship, I can see future books being in the A range.