The Mystery of the Sorrowful Maiden by Kate Saunders
This is the third book in the series, but I would argue that it works really well as a standalone, such is the quality of the writing and the narration of the main character, Mrs Laetitia Rodd. Set in 1853, Mrs Rodd is on the one hand the widow of an Archdeacon of slender means, but she is also an extremely effective private detective of great discretion. This is the third book that I have read and greatly enjoyed by Sauders; this is a series I buy as soon as I discover a new episode, and then struggle not to sit and read it immediately. The combination of an extremely consistent protagonist who succeeds partly as a result of her family connections, and her sensitivity to people, with a sure hand with the setting, in this case high Victorian London. The plot may not be the most watertight, but it is satisfyingly surprising and complex, and is well carried out throughout the novel. The research behind the writing is impeccable, on this occasion into the theatres and celebrity actors of the time, but is never allowed to interrupt the narrative. The characters are as over the top or as subtle as required by their roles in the story, and the clothes and their settings in rooms and other venues are so telling. It is a novel of historical crime, sometimes shocking but never unnecessarily gory or women as victim standard. Mrs Rodd, it is frequently asserted, is not easily shocked, but she does reveal some of her uneasiness at dealing with theatre people who had notorious reputations at this time. Altogether I think it is a most entertaining and enjoyable book.
When the book begins Mrs Rodd is comforting her friend and landlady, Mrs Bently, who has been ill. Their little household is under financial strain, so when a neighbour arrives with a request for her services, Mrs Rodd is very willing to help. Mr Tully lives alone as a retired actor, who was injured in saving the life of the great actor manager Thomas Trescome, who has decided to leave his wife Sarah. Mr Tully is concerned that Trescome will abandon Sarah without a decent settlement, and wants Mrs Rodd to advise her. Mrs Rodd soon discovers that there is a complex family situation, as Trescome is involved with a radiant young actress, Constance. His relationship with his eldest daughter, Maria, was excellent, but she has eloped with the son of his sworn enemy, and the two families seem to be determined to continue their feud. The next daughter, Olivia, is still devoted to her father, but seems to disappoint him. Cordelia is the youngest, and currently living with Sarah, but seems withdrawn and mysterious despite her father’s previous support. Mrs Rodd, with the help of Blackbeard, a police inspector who greatly respects her abilities, and her brother Fred, a famous lawyer, has to investigate the ins and outs of a complex situation. It takes her into the less salubrious parts of London theatres, the emotionally dramatic world of actors and actresses, and the shocking behaviour of men and women that can easily result in danger and death.
I found this to be a deeply satisfying read, well up to the standard of the previous novels, and strongly recommend the discreet investigations of Mrs Laetitia Rodd and her colleagues to anyone who enjoys thoughtful historical mysteries pursued through the streets of Victorian London.