Our book today is Deanna Raybourn’s stylish 2009 murder mystery, Silent on the Moor, the third novel starring the entirely amateur sleuth Lady Julia Grey, her enormous aristocratic family, and her Heathcliffean partner in crime detection, Nicholas Brisbane. The series started off with Silent in the Grave in 2007 (in which Lady Julia’s husband drops down dead very obligingly on page 1) and continued with Silent in the Sanctuary in 2008, so readers might be wary of picking up this third volume without a quick trip to the Boston Public Library for the first two. But one of the marks of a really good murder mysteries series is its approachability, and Raybourn manages very well the tricky feat of both inviting new readers and rewarding old fans. That trick is a hell of a lot tougher than it looks (it certainly goes well beyond what can be covered in a ‘What Has Gone Before’ summary at the beginning of later volumes) – it’s almost wholly dependent on the author having a crack cadre of first-readers who see the manuscript and catch the oversights before the eager world looks on. Past a certain point, of course, no preventative in the world can help – the later volumes of most long-running mystery series often devolve into a weird, barely-connected series of in-jokes and talisman-phrases aimed specifically at the people who’ve been buying and reading the books for 50 years. Characters will look at each other, smile meaningfully, and say “Artichokes!” – and there’ll be gales of laughter from long-time fans, although the text will be blockaded in kabbalistic obscurity for any first-time reader.
Readers of the Julia Grey novels will therefore be divided in their hopes: on the one hand, they’ll want that kind of rut to be avoided, but on the other hand, they’ll want the series to continue that long. I’m divided just that way myself: I acknowledge that it would be unbelievable for Lady Julia and sexy Brisbane to have even a couple more life-threatening adventures (with all due respect to Amelia Peabody and her sexy husband, whose propensity for ripping entirely out of his shirts is well matched by Brisbane), but as long as Raybourn can keep serving up such delectably enjoyable novels as this one, I kind of want her to keep doing it.
At the beginning of Silent on the Moor, Lady Julia determines to accompany her sister Portia to Grimsgrave Hall in the furthest reaches of mist-swathed Yorkshire. Portia has received a very tentative invitation from Brisbane, who’s recently come into possession of the Hall, and Lady Julia wants to go along because she’s tormented by the inconclusive way she and Brisbane left off their relationship. She’s in love with him, and she’s convinced he’s in love with her (a conviction not shared by her large and opinionated family), and so the two set off – with servants, pets (including a quite unfairly maligned pug), and, serving very unwillingly as their chaperon, their younger brother Valerius. After traveling to what seems like the end of the world, they reach Grimsgrave Hall and meet the Allenby women who, until the death of the last male heir, were the Hall’s mistresses – and they meet Brisbane, who’s the new lord of the manor and seems almost crazed by pressures about which he’s initially reluctant to speak a word.
One of the many charms of this series is the easy way Raybourn alludes to Lady Julia’s exalted status in her Victorian society; the family has manors, titles, and an endless supply of money, and no great fuss is ever made about it (there’s a rumor going about the Internet that Raybourn isn’t even English – that she’s not only American but Texan – but given the sureness with which she conveys 19th century British landed aristocracy, that surely can’t be true; judging by her name, I’m pegging her as minor Scottish nobility). The sisters can be casual about matters beyond the reach of most families:
“I poked about the public rooms earlier,” I confessed, coming to sit beside her. “Did you see the tapestry? All those little stitched crowns?”
Portia nodded, her expression faraway. “They are a bit ancestor-mad, I think.”
“But why? I mean, we’ve had kings and queens perched in the family tree, and we do not go about putting it on the walls for everyone to see.”
“Because we have never lost it,” Portia pointed out patiently. “The Allenbys haven’t been royal since the time of Canute. Do I mean Canute? Was he Saxon?”
“Danish, I think,” It was difficult to remember. We had had several governesses, none with a very firm grasp of history.
Portia shook her head. “In any event, the Allenbys probably lost everything except their royal blood when the Normans came in and upset the apple cart. They’ve no grand titles. They are marooned out here like Robinson Crusoe and Friday, with no proper company and a house that is threatening to fall down over their heads at any moment. Is it any wonder they cling to what little prestige they once had? If nothing else it gives them something to lord over the neighbours.”
Silent on the Moor is the first of these novels I’ve read in which the bubbling sub-plot of sexual tension between Lady Julia and Brisbane is almost bumped off the page: it’s Portia who most strongly fascinates here – Portia who’s using the freedom of her well-financed widowhood to share her house with another woman in defiance of society (the book isn’t two pages old before she’s referring to that woman as ‘the love of my life’ to her imperious older brother). It’s not that Lady Julia isn’t sympathetically portrayed – when poison and murder make their appearance at Grimsgrave Hall, she rises to the occasion in ways that will be immensely pleasing to all mystery readers, new to this series or not. But there’s a well-worn quality to her sparrings and jarrings with Brisbane – as well-executed as they are, we’ve seen them before. Less so Portia, and there are times in this novel when most readers will want the focus to stay on the supporting player.
Still, it’s Lady Julia’s show, and there’s great description and some very skilled tension-building and a blissfully satisfying ending, and these things are hardly to be sneezed at! I heartily recommend all three books for those of you who like your whodunits and your Burke’s Peerage well mixed!