Interesting. I originally gave this four stars, but rolled it back to three stars on thinking about it a little more. I think I was generous because I did enjoy the writing and some elements of the story, but after some consideration I shall state (if that put Oliver! in your head, I apologize, but it’s in mine now too) that Silent in the Grave falls short in more areas than it succeeds in.
Looking back at it, what first comes to mind is the clothing. The book is filled with details of mourning, and all the lovely new dresses that had to be put aside – new dresses which will now go to servants or a second-hand shop somewhere, because once mourning is over of course they’ll be out of style. (In truth, the dresses were given up with, it seemed, more regret than the deceased husband.) Colors and hems and buttons and patterns – they overwhelm other aspects of the book in my memory.
Silent in the Grave is set in 1886-7 London, largely, it seems, to take advantage of the fashions, and to allow the author to put her characters in broughams and hansoms and such. The characters feel far more modern. This is attributed to the fact that Our Heroine Lady Julia Grey is part of a family which prides itself on its oddness and insistence on keeping their distance from the ordinary. Her sister, for example, is in a committed relationship with another woman – all the family know, and they’re cool with it, as each and every family member is all but required to do or be something outrageous. Julia has shirked the duty – until now.
But it comes off not as avant-garde edginess, but nonsense. When all’s said and done it is Victorian London. There were discussions in the course of the story between Julia and assorted men of her relation and acquaintance, which were so unlikely as to be almost laughable. And while there certainly were lesbian couples – and gay couples, and molly-houses, and all the rest – I think it’s safe to say none of it was so open as it is in this book. Homosexuality was, at bottom, in many of its aspects illegal, and by the vast and righteous Victorian throng considered the depths of immorality. A “proper” Victorian lady wouldn’t even know such things existed in the world, much less her own family. It’s a lovely idea that a 19th century woman’s family is completely accepting of her lesbian relationship – but it’s beyond implausible. Knowledge of it would never remain within the family, for one thing (even if it was pas devant les domestiques), and once it leaked into society at large the entire family would, without question, be shunned. The same holds true for quite a few of the examples of outrageousness the family cultivates: it’s all very well for them, a family might have behaved so, but they would have been driven from the ton.
I like the idea of the murder being thought natural death for a long time. I only wish the reasons for that had not included an incompetent and misogynistic doctor. If the mores and outlook of the 21st century were going to be transplanted into so many 19th century characters, it might have been refreshing to see a doctor who knew what he was doing and wasn’t a burk about it.
I liked that Nicholas Brisbane was on the scene, and that he glared at Lady Julia and suspected her for some time; it would have been more interesting if she had been a stronger contender for the role of first murderer. I liked Brisbane … to a degree. Unfortunately, he bears a strong resemblance to others of his breed: the superlative detective with secrets. He’s so very good at so many things, and so obviously destined to be Lady Julia’s love interest from that first glaring moment. The most original things about him were his secrets, one of which I’ll touch on in a minute; the other was not perhaps so shocking as it was intended to be, and was almost as improbable as so much else.
Lady Julia, even when she was not obsessing about clothes, was less amiable. Another too-modern element to her and the story was her constant and open ogling of Brisbane; apparently even basic manners are too mundane for her family. She fluctuates rather wildly: she is one moment strong and independent and eager to embark on her own adventurous life – and the next moment she is meekly being led by the nose by her sister or Brisbane or the butler or her father, as she was by her husband. Her backbone, in other words, is highly variable.
The solution to the murder was, to me at least, unexpected, though from scanning other reviews that may not speak highly of my perceptiveness. Still, I defend myself with the protest that if more than half of what an author tells you about other characters is untrue (being as it was in this case from the first person point of view of Lady Julia – if she believed lies then that’s what the reader was given), it’s rather hard to discern the truth.
What bothered me at the time and bothers me perhaps more after the fact is the supernatural element of the story, grafted on more than halfway and abruptly, just completely out of the blue. It’s not a bad idea; it’s given background which helps; if this had been set in a less concrete and prosaic place and time, or if it had not been the single solitary paranormal ingredient to the mix, it would have been a lot of fun. But it is so thoroughly and utterly out of place in Silent in the Grave that it’s like a bonnet on a cow. A bonnet suddenly appearing on a cow standing out in the field minding her own business just like all the other cows.
Also: Thelonious Monk? Really?
Silent in the Grave is another on the list of “will read more if they come along but won’t actively hunt them down”.