5-23-2014 A REVIEW OF CHRISTINE TRENT’S STOLEN REMAINS: A LADY OF ASHES MYSTERY
A lady undertaker, a summons from Queen Victoria, a questionable death, a grieving housekeeper, arguing relatives, a body gone missing. In this second of the Lady of Ashes mysteries, when Queen Victoria summons her, Mrs. Violet Harper can’t refuse. She leaves her ill mother, her harried father, and her beloved second husband on their own while she rushes to London to tend to a dead viscount whose burial must be delayed until the Queen gives permission. The Queen trusts Violet’s discretion because she was so very kind and helpful when Prince Albert died.
A woman in a traditionally male profession, Violet believes in the dignity of the body, and speaks gently to the deceased describing to him each task whether mending his wounds, embalming, dressing, or maneuvering his body into a coffin, or arranging a hidden cache of ice to slow the body’s deterioration. Her diplomacy extends to the living as well, with advice about proper clothing, armbands, and mourning wreaths.
But undertaking isn’t Violet’s only duty. She’s drawn into the conflicting agendas of the dead viscount’s family and staff, Scotland Yard detectives, and Bertie, the Prince of Wales. The Queen herself has an agenda and knows more than she wants Violet or the others to guess.
In the London of 1869, mummies are unwound at royal parties, secret negotiations are underway over favorable British shipping fees at the new Suez Canal, and there are blackmail threats against French engineer Ferdinand de Lessep over his use of covee (near-slave) labor at the Canal. Violet is caught in a situation where nothing is what it seems starting with the dead viscount. Was his death a suicide or a homicide? Trying to get at the truth, Violet spars verbally with rival undertakers, detectives, and family members of the deceased.
Suspicions point to one answer, then another. To one person, then another. Her inquiry takes Violet to an evangelical revival in a seedy neighborhood, and to Westminster Bridge where she’s almost pushed into the Thames. She’s equally poised at Scotland Yard, a prison, St. Paul’s Cathedral, St. James Palace, and in the servants’ quarters. Her mind is bursting with the evolving mystery of one death followed by others, yet she manages to keep up with her husband’s business interest in the new explosive called dynamite and its inventor, Alfred Noble.
By the time the mystery is solved with the requisite last minute revelations, confessions, and justice, London of 1869 has come alive through the adventures of the lively, kind, and impeccably dressed Mrs. Violet Harper, undertaker and incidental sleuth. This is a character I want to meet again and again.
Christine Trent mixes a provocative mystery with historical detail and a compassionate attitude toward the recently deceased to create a narrative with familiar bones in a fresh guise. Look for Stolen Remains, Lady of Ashes, and Christine Trent’s other historical novels at booksellers and libraries everywhere.
Read what Christine Trent’s doll collection has to do with her writing career in my April 23, 2014 post on Late Last Night Books.