Death in the Floating City, Tasha Alexander

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October 16, 2012

Death in the Floating City

Death in the Floating City

It’s hard to imagine a more romantic setting for a mystery than Victorian England, which is why so many authors choose it, Tasha Alexander included.  The most recent Lady Emily Hargreaves mystery, however, one-ups the romantic setting by sending Emily and her husband Colin to Venice, with its sun-filled palazzos, twisting streets, and gondola-filled canals.

There is much to recommend here: the setting is well-rendered, and Emily and Colin are as charming as always.  There is also an intra-story of an ill-fated Renaissance couple, Besina and Nicolo, who fall in love and are denied the right to marry thanks to a lengthy family feud.  Yes, it’s straight out of Shakespeare, but it’s no less compelling.  In fact, the biggest issue I had with this book was that I ended up far more interested in the fate of Besina and Nicolo than in the mystery Emily and Colin are charged with solving.

That mystery is far more prosaic.  Emily is summoned by her childhood rival, Emma, to assist her when her father-in-law is murdered and her husband vanishes thereafter.  Also missing is a collection of valuable manuscripts, while the dead man is found clutching a mysterious ring in his hand.  Emma firmly believes that her husband is innocent of patricide, despite the suspicious circumstances.  Emily and Colin are forced to divide forces—he to trace the missing Count while his wife attempts to trace the origins of the ring.  Alexander wisely focuses on Lady Emily’s investigations here, as she’s the more interesting character.

Truth be told, I’m personally not a huge fan of books set during this time period, but people who enjoy Victorian historicals will no doubt find plenty here to like, as I did.  Emily is a dauntless detective, and fearless.  She is unconventional for a woman of her position at that time in that class means little to her and her social standing even less.  There’s a heady mix of danger and romance mixed in just the right amounts, and the setting is wonderfully realized.

This all makes for a very pleasant read, and the mystery itself is fairly straightforward until Alexander basically pulls the resolution of the case out of nowhere, which is pretty darned disconcerting.  I found it so bewildering, in fact, that I actually went back and traced the clues, thinking I’d missed something.  I don’t think I did.  It’s one thing to pull some clever sleight of hand on a reader a la Agatha Christie, but if Alexander did that here, it was very clever indeed.  I didn’t find it.

And finally, there is the story of Besina and Nicolo.  Their tragic love affair is the more interesting of the two stories here, and while it’s tied to the mystery and figures into the solution, it’s presented separately in its own chapters.  It’s impossible as a modern reader not to be sympathetic to their plight—we are free to break from our families and choose our own destinies, something that was virtually impossible back then.  And viewing the two time periods (Renaissance and Victorian) side by side provides some interesting contrasts, because there’s really a distinct lack of progress between the two of them.  Women in Victorian England and Venice had little more flexibility than their Renaissance sisters did—they may have had more choice in terms of marriage partners, but societal restrictions and class boundaries still kept them firmly in their allotted places.  In that respect, Lady Emily seems distinctly modern in comparison to most of the women she encounters here; her progressive attitudes, however, are quite out of line with her time period.  It does leave plenty of room for thought about just how far we have, and haven’t, come as women over the last 500 plus years.

 

The novel mentioned in this review was generously provided by the publisher during my tenure with RT Book Reviews.

 

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