Okay, quick synopsis:
At the opening, Sir Edward collapses and dies at his London home, in the presence of his wife, Julia, and a roomful of dinner guests. Julia assumes it was a heart condition, and is outraged when private inquiry agent (like a Victorian P.I.) Nicholas Brisbane suggests that Sir Edward has been murdered. Later she comes to believe the enigmatic Brisbane, and together they follow a trail of clues that lead Julia to even more unpleasant truths, and a killer who waits expectantly for her arrival.
One of my fave gambits--not a spoiler
About a third of the way in our heroine, widow Lady Julia Grey bursts in on the brooding Brisbane (who is still kind of a stranger to her) and finds him ill, delerious, and not fully dressed. She feels bad about it, and afterwards here is what she thinks to herself:
And worse by far, I had taken advantage of Brisbane's indisposition and state of undress to assess his physique. It was shamefull, really. Poor Brisbane, racked by pain and half mad with absinthe, and I had actually taken the opportunity to look at his bared chest.She goes on a bit, and though she notes that Brisbane had his own sort of grace that "puts one in mind of wolves and lithe jungle cats" (!!) she concludes that:
My only consolation was that I had not enjoyed the experience. Brisbane was not at all the sort of man I admired. He was too dark, too tall, too thickly muscled, altogether too much. I preferred a slender, epicene form, with delicately sketched muscles and golden hair. Graceful, artistocratic, like a Renaissance statue. Like Edward.
It required an entirely different aesthetic altogether to appreciate Brisbane, one that I lacked. Entirely. Even so, it was wrong of me even to look at him, especially at so fraught a time.When I was reading this I thought, what??? The heroine isn't thunderstruck by the unexpected glimpse of the hero?!? I mean, there are shades of "thou doth protest too much" but so subtle I couldn't tell...and I really wanted to tell! I'm so spoiled by instant gratification in these sorts of circumstances, I was a bit disappointed. Not for long.
I was immensely pleased when this passage comes a few pages later. Lady Julia is searching through her old books for a specific one, and finds Persuasion, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice.
The rest were much the same, romantic stories with dark, brooding men with mysterious pasts and scornful glances. Some of them were good novels, by proper authors. Much of it was complete rubbish. I groaned as I shoved them back onto the shelf. How many summer days had I whiled away tucked in the apple tree at Bellmont Abbey with one of these books, dreaming of the day when a darkly handsome man would sweep me away to his castle on the moor? How many winter evenings had I huddled in bed, reading by candlelight until my eyes ached just to see if it all turned out happily for the beleaguered lovers?
Why on earth had my father permitted me to read such muck? It had left me with an overactive, overromantic imagination, I thought furiously. As a girl, when I had imagined my future husband, I had always thought of someone dark and masterful, lord of some crumbling estate...In the uppermost part of her mind, she is attracted to pretty blonde men like her late husband Edward, but then when she's looking at her old books, she sort of reveals what is deeper in her psyche--dark, brooding heroes like Heathcliff...or Brisbane.
Oh, I so admired this smart and entertaining use of first person! Can an author even pull this off in third person? I suppose, but it just wouldn't be so much fun. For this reader, anyway.
Another small thing I loved about this book is the kindness of characters to one another. It made me happy to be in this world. I especially enjoyed Lady Julia's kindness to others, and her extreme conscientiousness. What reminded me of it was this bit I found when I was searching for the above. This was a few lines below:
(Julia, thinking about her late husband Edward): "Once I married him, I ceased to think of my girlhood heroes, carefully shelving the books I had once adored. I somehow felt disloyal to Edward to read them..." and later, "And I remained faithful to him, even in literature."
Faithful even in literature! I would heartily recommend this to anybody. (Unless you're looking for smutty heat.) I can't wait to read the next.