This felt so very much like … well, several books I’ve read before, but especially Silent in the Grave: Both were in the first person. In both, a Victorian lady is widowed, doesn’t mind very much, finds out much later poor old hubby, Philip, Viscount Ashton, was murdered, and conducts investigation alongside husband’s friend (with whom there are sparks) while stressing constantly about what to wear and when can I get out of mourning for heaven’s sake it’s not like I loved him. In both, I wound up with a deep impatience for, if not outright dislike of, the heroine.
Emily’s first reaction to news of her husband’s death is relief. He wasn’t a bad fellow, but she only married him to get away from her mother’s constant nagging, and hey – a couple of years wearing ugly mourning colours, and now she’s free and clear and can do what she wants. Yay. Unfortunately, as time goes by, Emily succumbs to her husband’s friends’ opinions of him, and begins to fall morbidly in love with his memory, the ideal image of the man she never bothered to get to know. He genuinely loved her; that’s enough to start her falling. Too late.
In her fervor of self-flagellation for being unable to face Philip’s friends and family, she begins to throw herself into his passions. Well, two of them; she still can’t abide his beloved hunting (which would have been quite a can of worms if he had lived), but she plunges into the study of ancient Greek and the appreciation of ancient Greek art. In about five minutes she begins to uncover what must be a forgery ring, and, fearing her husband might have been involved, investigates.
She is shaken, trying very hard to reconcile this criminal activity with her green worship of him. Then the book catches up to my prediction (based on the classic soap opera warning “did you see the body?”) and she is told Ashton might still be alive, despite his best friend’s insistence that he was there and watched the man die. She is thrilled, determined to move heaven and earth to find him and nurse him lovingly back to health. A little ways into that process, I had an intuition that he couldn’t be alive after all – and I was right. I’ve said it before: if I can predict how your book is going to turn out, you’ve done something wrong. And so he is revealed to yes, be dead, and in fact, have been murdered, and she basically shrugs her shoulders and swans off to revel some more in her romantic ideal of the widow who, see? Really did love her husband after all (if too late).
Excerpts from Ashton’s journal never really pull their own weight; they are mostly inconsequential, unrelated to the chapters they proceed, and never echo what Emily thinks about them. Though I suppose I should be happy the author spared me the long and boring passages about hunting, still, on the flip side there was remarkably little about the wedding night. Which isn’t said out of prurience, but just because Emily was sort of looking forward to what he wrote.
And the ending … the wrapup of the story was satisfying enough, but once everything was explained away there were still far too many pages left. And it just kept going. All through the book Ashton’s friend (whatsit) had been encouraging Emily to go to Greece, to the villa in Santorini Ashton had prepared for her. I had rather expected that to be the next book – it would be perfect, I thought, to build it up, maybe have her planning the trip as this book ended, and then set the second book in the series on the island.
The book was quite readable, which is why I did read it through. But it was disjointed. As a friend pointed out in her review, there was a great deal attempted, and not really succeeded at. And one major thing keeping this book from a higher rating was the completely incomprehensible handling of the forger. He is stunningly gifted, and has no problem selling copies of ancient work: he makes no pretense that they are the real thing, after all, and what his buyer does with the work once it’s his isn’t the artist’s problem. Which … is a nice way to look at it, if you can manage it, but isn’t very realistic. Up to that point it reminded me very strongly of the case of the artist Alceo Dossena and his buyer, his dealer, Alfredo Fasoli. Dossena claimed ignorance of the ultimate dispositions of his work, too, but he wasn’t quite so cheerful about the fact that while he got a pittance for the art his dealer would sell it on, as original, for thousands. He sued. This guy? He has absolutely no problem with the fact that his name is still unknown, that the scores of hours of work and talent invested in every piece is being attributed to others, and – least likely – has no problem with living on the edge of poverty while his dealer is raking it in. Worst, though, is the fact that this one forger handles several different media, no problem. Sculpture? Got it. Black figure urn? No problem. And so on. I went to art school; I’ve always been interested in art forgery and I’ve read a bit about it. I know full well that artists are more than capable of great things in more than one medium – but the likelihood that a man would be so very, very good at pottery AND sculpture as to have his work pass for the best of the best among the ancients, including Praxiteles, is incredibly small. For him to be so gifted and still not be able to make a living for himself without being completely unscrupulous… maybe it’s not unrealistic, but it seemed so.
Suddenly, about three quarters of the way through the book, Emily develops a very lawyerly turn of mind, knowing instinctively finer points of what is and is not strictly legal and what will and will not convict a man. The reformation of a female main character from fluffy-headed clotheshorse at the beginning to strong and capable independent woman by the end is no new thing in fiction, but (or maybe “and so”) it has to be handled well to be really believable. I’m not so sure about Emily.