The year is 1704 and Lady Cecily Kay has returned to London from her husband’s posting as a consul in Smyrna. Upon learning of her imminent return to the British Isles, Cecily sent a letter to Sir Barnaby Mayne, a renowned collector in London with one of the most expansive collections in the country, possibly the world. Cecily is interested in identifying some plant samples she has collected while abroad and Sir Barnaby has agreed to her use of his collection for this purpose.
The day after her arrival, Sir Barnaby is to conduct a tour of his collection for several other collectors and Cecily is invited to join the tour. As Sir Barnaby is conveying his guests through his labyrinthine collection, he receives a letter that is urgent and must be responded to immediately. He asks his assistant to continue the tour and retires to his study. The next time Sir Barnaby is seen, he is dead. He has been stabbed through the heart. Cecily is one of the people on the tour who finds him and hears his assistant confess to the murder before fleeing the house. As she considers what happened, Cecily begins to question the motives assigned and the circumstances of the crime. She becomes convinced that someone else killed Sir Barnaby, but will she be able to determine who actually killed him and why?
In this novel, Elsa Hart provides readers with a thrilling mystery and a wonderful sense of early 18th century London (complete with uncomfortable clothes, class structures and wigs that may add a foot to a person’s height!). The characters are nicely drawn, and are primarily from London’s upper social classes where those with the means are able to pursue their obsessive collecting habits (or look with disdain upon those who do). When Cecily arrives at the Mayne household, she is reunited with Meacan, a childhood friend. Hart uses Meacan to illustrate the class differences present in the culture (Meacan is the daughter of the gardener for Cecily’s family’s estate); the differences in their current situations (one must work, the other does not); and their perspectives and proficiencies (Meacan is markedly the more “streetwise” of the two while still a “proper” lady). This results in a partnership in solving the murder as they work together to solve the crime.
Meacan is also the conduit through which Hart introduces the most interesting character in the book: Covo. Covo is the proprietor of a local coffee house frequented by collectors because of his unrivaled abilities to assist them in acquiring the items they seek (even if those items do not actually exist). Part charlatan and part protector, Covo is a variation on the honorable criminal archetype with a fascinating, if clouded, past who plays a critical part in solving the mystery of Sir Barnaby’s death.
The quest for the identity of Sir Barnaby’s killer will keep readers turning the pages and there is a hint on the last pages that this may not be the only mystery Cecily and Meacan solve together. Here’s hoping that readers get the chance to read about their further adventures!
Here is an interview with the author.