Jane Steen

Books: Mystery | Historical

Lady Helena Investigates (2018), Lady Odelia's Secret (2022), Lady Ambition’s Dilemma (2024)

Lady Helena Investigates (2018)

Set in Sussex in 1881

Lady Helena Whitcombe survived the death of her first love, and now she must get past the accidental death of her husband. Except that her husband's doctor doesn't think the drowning was an accident, but a murder.

Helena's is the youngest of her siblings, and as was common at the time, has nieces and nephews closer in age to her than her oldest siblings. Despite being a grown woman, many of her older siblings attempt to manage her life, and at first she doesn't have the strength to stop them, but as time passes and she settles into being a widow, she begins to discover herself, in a way she hadn't since she was a teenager.

I can't have you back, so I'm forced to move forward with my life. I let Daniel's death reduce me to some kind of paralysis, but you rescued me from it in the end. Perhaps this time I can find the strength to do without a rescuer.

This is a murder mystery, but the story is as much about Helena's growth and self-discovery as it is about discovering whether her husband was murdered, and why.

(D)eepest mourning should be carried out with the mirrors covered, you know. You're not supposed to be looking at yourself and considering who you are.

That's an interesting concept. In a way it feels cruel, but in another way, it makes sense–you probably shouldn't be making life changing decisions in the depths of grief.

Although her siblings were a bit overwhelming to keep straight at first, and I wondered about the motives of her brother, eventually they became distinct personalities.

"I find this house terribly quiet by comparison."

"I have just as many visitors as I want, thank you, Blanche. And don't forget I'm still in deep mourning."

I didn't mention that several of my regular visitors, hearing of Blanche's presence, would delay their next visit until she was gone. Blanche's little assertions of superiority and gripes about money tended to put people off.

I also began to appreciate Michael, who was clearly dyslexic, even if that concept was unknown at the time, and who worked around his handicap as a wealthy lord might–buy hiring good men to be his secretaries.

It was almost unheard-of for Michael to look anyone directly in the eye, with the exception of his children.

"They're in Papa's map chest, quite nicely preserved. In fact, would you like the map chest itself? You always enjoyed playing with it when you were a little girl."

"Michael dislikes it," added Annette. "He says all the little compartments under the glass lid are crooked, and he doesn't like the way the glass reflects. You know how fussy he is."

This is not a thriller. There are no chases or murderers hiding in the dark with sharp knives. But there is plenty of death–the deaths common to the times, of childbirth and illness. But it is, as I said, a discovery of the past and Helena's own strengths.

I very much enjoyed it.

Publisher: Aspidistra Press

Lady Odelia's Secret (2022)

Lady Odelias SecretSet in England in 1882.

I read the first book, Lady Helena Investigates, soon after it came out, and was disgruntled when there wasn't a sequel.

Until a couple weeks ago I stumbled across the second book in the series. HUZZAH!

Lady Helena is a widow, yet she is still often called her childhood nickname by her family (Baby), and sometimes still feels like she is treated as a child.

Loyalty had prevented my sisters telling me about my father's affairs and their effect on Mama.

This is as much an historical novel as it is an historical mystery. Helena is finishing her first full year of mourning, and trying to determine what she might want to do with the long future she has ahead of her.

"I'm torn, O. I want to be Justin's wife forever— but how can I be if I become someone else's? And yet, if I remain loyal to Justin, I'll be alone forever. And I don't want that."

"(N)ow I must be alone until I can be sure who I am and what I want. I feel as if I was born as a new person the day my husband died, and until I know who that person is, I can't know whether she wishes to bestow her hand on anyone in particular."

I also really loved the little bits of life.

The second Sunday service at St. Michael and All Angels saw us neatly arrayed in our gated section of pews, which were decorated with our coat of arms lest some impertinent stranger should entertain the idea that all seats in God's house were equal.…

Our pews were at right angles to the rest of the congregation so that we could both see and be seen.

It isn't until 30% in that we get the first hints of mystery.

I took the paper from her. "How long will you get away with it, you—" I stopped reading. "Good heavens, I've never actually seen that word written down."

I actually enjoyed this slow unwinding, but it might not be the best for someone who wants to jump right into action and adventure.

I particularly like that although her family members have their own quirks, they (for the most part) stand behind and with each other, fully accepting each other. This was particularly evident with Helena's older brother Michael.

I felt Michael— who hated to touch, or be touched by, other people— flinch as I rested my fingertips as lightly as possible on his arm.

Especially this bit, how offhand she is.

"That'll get into the newspapers. Lord Broadmere won't like it. Yes, I know he can't read the papers, but my sisters read the gossip columns and they'll make sure he knows about it.

For a mystery, it's surprisingly calming and cozy, and hopefully I don't have to wait for years for another installment.

Publisher: Aspidistra Press

Lady Ambition’s Dilemma (2024)

Lady Ambition's DilemmaSet in England in 1883.

Lady Helena is approaching the end of her mourning period, following the death of her husband in 1881. Although she still misses Justin, she is ready to return to the world–and her growing feelings for Armand Fortier also need to be considered.

But those thoughts are put to the wayside when one of her older sisters demands Helena’s assistance in helping her son out.

I was not prone to losing my temper with my sisters, but I could feel myself beginning to simmer with irritation. “You’re asking for my help, so I’m making it easier for you by admitting I know something of such matters instead of acting like a hypocrite. Justin told me that such men exist and that they often marry anyway. Although,” a new thought struck me, “it would be rather unfair to your putative American heiress, wouldn’t it? Is that your dilemma?”

My words appeared to strike Blanche dumb for the space of twenty seconds, but then she recovered. “Dederick’s not such men.” She looked quite distraught, and I began to feel sorry for her again. “He has sworn to me it was with just the one boy—at school—that matters went beyond mere affection.” She choked again.

I was cautious reading this, unsure the subject of homosexuality would be addressed. Also, Dederick is an obnoxious git to Helena at the start of the story.

“So you’ve had affairs with women?” This was something I wasn’t sure Blanche knew.

The arrogance and derision were back on Dederick’s face. “I’m perfectly capable of performing the act with them, since that’s obviously what’s on your mind. Can’t I have some brandy now?”

While Helena tries to help her nephew, other issues arise, including the death of Armand Fortier’s father, and Armand’s bringing is cousin and the boy raised as their son to England, and a visit from the brother of Helena’s first love. All of which means we get to spend more time with some of the secondary characters, including Helena’s nephew Thomas (who is nearly the same age as Helena) and who for the first time in the series is honest about his frustrations with his body.

It hasn’t helped to have Jonathan here, reminding us all he can fight and ride and stride around in that ridiculous uniform while I play children’s games. I’m angry—not at him, but at this.” He put his good hand under the elbow of his withered arm, lifting it into view.

“This doesn’t make you less of a man.” I caught his twisted right hand in mine, caressing it.

I like Thomas very much, and I think he’d be a good vicar, I also want him to find happiness. I believe we’ll find more about what happens to him in future books.

Oh! And there was reference to the strange weather due to events across the world.

She waved a hand at the vase. “I’m trying to recreate the unearthly twilights we’ve been having—to build a sort of record in ceramics.”

Another thing I should mention about 1883 was a shock that was literally felt around the world. From May to October of that year, the Indonesian island of Krakatoa underwent huge paroxysms of volcanic activity, peaking on 27 August with an explosion so massive it was heard nearly two thousand miles away,

I enjoy this series, and the only bad thing is it takes a couple years for her to write these books.

Publisher: Aspidistra Press

Cover design by Rachel Lawston & Alexandra Allden

Rating: 9/10

Lady Helena, Armand Fortier, Blanche, Dederick, Guttridge, Silas, Alexandre Fortier, Michael, Thomas, Maryanne, Ned & Gerry, Quinn & Gabrielle Dermody, Lord Arthur, Ellen & Lucy Walfort