Point of Honour (2003)
Point of Honour is a mystery novel set in Regency London. Sarah Tolerance is a Fallen woman, and as such she has few venues open to her that would allow her to make a living. The most common “career” for a fallen woman was prostitution, and indeed Sarah’s aunt has taken this path, and become one of the more well-to-do Madams in London. However, Sarah has chosen her own path, and has become an agent of inquiry, Most of her clients are well-to-do women who want to know what their husbands are doing, but latest client wants her to find a lost article–an Italian fan.
What I particularly liked about this story was the effort that was put into making Sarah's situation believable. The past that would have allowed Sarah to become an agent of inquiry is--although unexpected--still believable. Especially the consequences of that past. But Sarah's situation was still such that she was able to survive as an agent of inquiry, for multiple reasons set out within the story.
The mystery was wonderful. The story took many different twists and turns, most unexpected, but almost all believable within the context of the story and the characters. Indeed, halfway through the book, the story reached what I had assumed what would be the conclusion of the story, but clearly was not.
Sarah herself was a wonderful character, although one that I am sure can be appreciated only by the modern reader. She is strong willed, and does what she wants, and yet recognizes that there are consequences for those actions.
The secondary characters were also very well done. They were distinct and recognizable from one another, which is always a plus in any story. It's frustrating to have one secondary character blend into another, and I always enjoy it when an author is as good with her background characters as with her primary characters.
Additionally, this book is fantastic from the first paragraph.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Fallen Woman of good family must, soon or late, descend into whoredom. Indeed, a maidservant or seamstress might eke out her wages with casual prostitution, but a gentlewoman of damaged virtue is so often lacking the resources that dedicated harlotry is her necessary fate.
How's that for an opening line?
The one thing that annoyed me, however, was the fact that although we were close enough to the main character to know her thoughts and feelings, she is still referred to as Miss Tolerance, which just bugged me. I didn't think about her as Miss Tolerance, but instead as Sarah, so I kept wondering why the author was referring to her so formally.
Okay, one other thing that bugged me: I could not remember the name Gregor Mendel. I could dredge Punnett squares out of my memory, but not Gregor Mendel. (Mind you, the setting of the story pre-dates Mendel's work, but it was annoying just the same.)
Now mind you, I love historical mysteries, so I was already predisposed to enjoy this story. But in addition to a setting I adore, Point of Honour also provided strong characters, a complex mystery, and good writing. If you like historical mysteries, then you should enjoy Point of Honour.
Petty Treason (2004)
Sarah Tolerance is a fallen woman. Although she lives with her aunt (another Fallen) in her brothel, she has not chosen to become a prostitute, but as society will not forgive her, so she has chosen an unconventional life as an Agent of Inquiry.
Initially, I was slightly annoyed at Sarah Tolerance, because how the dead Chevalier got his money was quite obvious to me, and I was frustrated she couldn't see it. But she figured it out, and it wasn't much more than a third of the way into the story, so I decided that she probably wasn't slow, I was just being impatient. And although I figured out who the killer was before Sarah Tolerance did, I didn't mind.
As with the previous book, Point of Honor what I particularly like is how Madeline E. Robins has created a character who has reasonable and believable reasons for what makes her stand out from the society around her. I also liked how the relationship between Sarah Tolerance and Sir Walter Mandif has developed. A good detective always needs to have at least one policeman on her side, and although Bow Street magistrates weren't the same as police, Mandif functions in a similar manner--and again, the reasons for the friendship are reasonable.
Also as with the previous book, I very much enjoyed the writing.
It is one thing, and quite a considerable thing, to be a lady. A true lady is a person of virtue and beauty, of accomplishment and talent, of gentle birth and rigorous upbringing. She inspires love in her suitors and obedience in her servants, and knows how to hold housekeeping and bully the butcher and chandler so cleverly that those persons feel it their privilege to serve her. The suggestion of strife oppresses her, and her pleasures are the mildest and most delicate. Her honor is a possession prized above rubies, and even the gentles breath of scandal damanges it forever. If adventures offers itself she understands that her reputation is at stake, and wisely settles for tedium. Or so the theory goes.
A gentleman, however, is not constrained by prudishness. His sex licenses him, even encourages him, to see out adventure and prove himself.
Thus we have a succinct description of society at the time, and how men and women are supposed to behave.
The characters are also well done, especially the changing relationship between Sarah Tolerance and her aunt. Mr. Heddison was also well done. Sarah Tolerance's experience with the magistrate and his officers are a reminder that no matter what problems we we currently have, our justice system is still far better than that which existed two hundred years ago in England. Yet Heddison wasn't bad or evil, he was simply a product of his time and situation.
If you enjoy historical mysteries (this one is set during the Regency period) then you should enjoy Petty Treason, although I recommend starting with Point of Honor, since I always prefer to watch characters develop over time, and because some of the events in the previous book are mentioned.
The Sleeping Partner (2012)
I came across the first two books around the time they were published (2003 and 2004) and was disappointed when no further volumes were forthcoming. Luckily, the series (or at least this book) was picked up by another published, which gives us The Sleeping Partner.
A young gentlewoman has disappeared–presumably eloped–but her sister is worried by her sudden disappearance and asked Sarah Tolerance to find the young lady and return her to her family. The situation is complicated by the fact that the woman provides a portrait, but not her family name (and is meeting Sarah under an obvious pseudonym) for fear of scandal.
But Sarah’s search finds no trace of the girl, or evidence of a young man in her life, and the situation becomes less clear as her search progresses.
First, this isn’t a true historical, in that the author bent facts to suit her story. I, personally have no problem with that, but some people might.
Second, despise guessing relatively quickly what was going on, I still thoroughly enjoyed the story. Life was not easy for a Fallen woman, but Sarah has made her way in the world. Her relationship with her aunt remains complicated, which I would think it would be.
Thirdly, this story doesn’t cover up the way life was for many many young women in that age. Take the following:
“I am in the business of–well, not selling young women, but renting some part of their flesh in the short term.
To quote Hobbes, like was more often that not “poor, nasty, brutish and short” for the poor.
And as is my wont, I appreciated the historical accuracy of medicine and war:
The British assault upon Napoleon’s naval forces in the low-lands of Holland in 1809 had been turned back, not by force but by a virulent malaria which had killed more than four thousand men outright, and invalided twice that number.
Again, I am reminded why I am so pleased and delighted to be living in the future. One note, however–when someone was shot, and there was serious danger from any material that entered the body with the shot–I paid close attention to the surgery scene and didn’t note any removal of clothing that would have been embedded in the wound, and thus immediately worried that the person who had been shot was going to die of infection.
This wasn’t the case, but still.
And I was highly amused by many of the descriptions, such as, “‘E come stumpin’ down the street, mad ass the duck’s dinner.” I’ve never noticed duck food to be particularly enraged, so I thought that a hilarious description.
Because of such a long time between books (and also, I’d presume, because of the switch in publishers) we are reintroduced to Sarah, so if you have not read the previous books (they are still available, at least as eBooks) you can easily pick up this volume without previous knowledge of the characters.
Published by Plus One Press