Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn

Silent in the Grave, Deanna Raybourn’s debut effort, opens with the death of Lady Julia (née March) Grey’s husband, Edward. Edward had been sickly since a child, so his death was expected. What was not expected, however, was a private investigator named Nicholas Brisbane telling Lady Julia that her husband did not, in fact, die of natural causes. He was murdered.

Before his death, Edward had been receiving threatening notes using quotations from the Bible, including the one from which the novel gets its title: Psalm 31:17 – Let the wicked be ashamed, and let them be silent in the grave. Edward had hired Brisbane to determine the source of the notes and hopefully prevent the violence they implied. Julia is at first disbelieving, but when confronted with one of the notes, she chooses to keep Brisbane in her hire in order to determine if Edward was indeed murdered and if so, who the culprit is.

As Julia and Brisbane dive headlong into the mystery, they uncover all sorts of secrets – about Edward, about Julia’s household servants, and about Brisbane himself. This being a book from MIRA, an imprint of Harlequin, there’s a fair amount of romantic tension between the two leads, but this is a mystery first and foremost.

And it’s a great one. Julia is a terrific protagonist – a little snobby, but broad-minded enough to be relatable to a modern audience. She’s plucky, headstrong, smart, and funny, and Brisbane is wonderful as her enigmatic partner in sleuthing. Raybourn pours on the historical details, but it never becomes tedious. Instead, it makes the period come alive, elegance and decay alike. And the plots and subplots and sub-subplots are twisty and surprising and always interesting to read about.

There are some hitches. At times, characters’ actions or words will contradict. For example, Julia tells the reader how much she preferred the late Edward’s blonde good looks, and a few pages later remarks that her teenage fantasies always involved dark, brooding men – exactly the opposite of Edward. I understand that this helps develop Julia’s character and her budding romance with Brisbane, who is very much a dark, brooding man, but it seems clunky.

Additionally, characters often act in what seems to be an anachronistic way. The March family speaks rather freely about sexual affairs, homosexuality, prostitution, and other topics we modern readers tend to believe just weren’t discussed openly in prim and proper Victorian times. Julia’s elder sister Portia is, for all intents and purposes, a fully out lesbian and lives with her lover Jane, and the family doesn’t seem to suffer much socially for it. Of course these things did go on then as they do now, but the way the characters react to it strains credulity. Their sensibilities are a bit too modern to be believable.

These are minor quibbles in an otherwise fantastic story. Silent in the Grave has everything required for a nearly perfect romantic historical mystery: lots of witty banter, a solid (and wonderfully salacious) central mystery, a large and colorful cast of characters, plenty of period detail, and several subplots to keep you interested in case you solve the main mystery before the sleuth does. Plus, Raybourn resolves mostly everything but leaves one small thread purposefully dangling so you’ll be eager to pick up the sequel once you’ve finished. Which I promptly did.

Borrowed from my local library.

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