Dark Road to Darjeeling, Deanna Raybourn
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of hearing Deanna Raybourn speak at Murder by the Book. She was on tour for her new book, The Dark Enquiry, the fifth in the Lady Julia Grey series. I stood in line to get my copy signed and told her how much I enjoy her books. I didn't mention that I hadn't actually read the previous one, Dark Road to Darjeeling. I had started it, intrigued by the setting, a tea plantation. Ever since I read Helen Gustafson's The Agony of the Leaves I've been on the lookout for books about tea. As it happens, another of my favorite authors, Deborah Crombie, also wrote a mystery with a tea setting, Kissed A Sad Goodbye. Once I'd started Dark Road to Darjeeling, though, I got distracted, set it aside, and never went back to it. Hearing Deanna Raybourn's talk gave me a push to pick it up again.
If I was reading it primarily to learn about tea plantations, which I wasn't, then I'd have been disappointed, which I definitely wasn't. The real heart of the Julia Grey novels is the relationship between Julia and her now-husband, Nicholas Brisbane. They were married at the end of the last book, Silent on the Moor, and this book opens toward the end of their extended honeymoon abroad. Their relationship is complicated, to say the least, and marriage hasn't resolved all the issues. Julia is not content to play the conventional wifely role of her late 19th-century world, she expects their marriage to be a partnership, and she wants to work with Brisbane as a partner. He does not want her exposed to the dangers of his work as a private enquiry agent. I am reminded of similar debates between Laurie R. King's Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes; Elizabeth Peters' Amelia and Emerson; and Dorothy L. Sayers' Harriet and Peter. Brisbane is by far the most resistant to an equal partnership.
The mystery they are called to investigate on the tea plantation involves the possible murder of its owner, Freddy Cavendish, a distant family connection and the husband of Jane, the former partner of Julia's sister Portia (one of my favorite characters). Portia and another sibling, their brother Plum, accompany Julia and Brisbane. I adore Julia's family, I think they add greatly to the humor and whimsy of the series, and while I know readers swoon over Brisbane, I dote on her father, the Earl March.
Though the plantation is set in a small valley, Julia and Brisbane find quite a collection of suspects, and the plot twists and turns through their investigation. The solution took me by surprise, but then I hardly ever guess the murderer, since I'm more interested in the characters than in the clues. I found one of the characters morally repellent and liable to arrest for child abuse, and generally the parts of the story involving children were disturbing. But as with all of Deanna Raybourn's books, she brings a complicated story to a neat and satisfying conclusion. I'm glad I have The Dark Enquiry still ahead, especially since from what she says it will be the last Julia Grey story for quite some time.