Friday, December 3, 2021

Not Austen's London

I stumbled onto Andrea Penrose’s Wrexford & Sloane series through an Amazon recommendation and decided to give it a whirl. I ripped through it in a couple of days and immediately read the rest of the series. Having enjoyed Wrexford & Sloane so much, I’m currently working my way through another, loosely related series by the same author—this one featuring Lady Arianna Hadley and the Earl of Saybrook. We talk about both in my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction

The series opens with Murder at Black Swan Lane, which features a brutal murder in a London church, ca. 1811, committed over the possession of a book by someone identified only as the “Golden One.” Charlotte Sloane—a young artist who supports herself under the pen name A.J. Quill—arrives in time to produce a detailed sketch of the body but flees the scene when the Bow Street Runners arrive.

Switch to the next morning, when the Earl of Wrexford roars with outrage to discover, first, that A.J. Quill has ridiculed him yet again over his romantic liaisons and, second, that there’s a Bow Street Runner on the doorstep convinced that the earl has committed murder. Why? Because the victim in the church turns out to be a clergyman who has been conducting an escalating and vitriolic public feud with Wrexford, known throughout the city for his hair-trigger temper and his absolute refusal to tolerate fools gladly.

In Regency England, peers can be tried only in the House of Lords, so Wrexford is not in immediate danger of being hauled off to Newgate Prison. But sufficient evidence will doom even the highest nobleman to conviction and execution. So the hunt is on for the killer, with Wrexford forced to ally with the one person who seems to have his—or is it her?—finger on the pulse of criminal London: A.J. Quill, aka Charlotte Sloan.

The series continues with Murder at Half Moon Gate, Murder at Kensington Palace, Murder at Queen’s Landing, and (as of September) Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens. Through each book, Charlotte’s and Wrexford’s relationship deepens as more of their past, especially hers, comes to light. The characters are complex, the plots challenging, and the solutions satisfying. But what really sets this series apart is its rich and varied portrayal of Regency London itself and its focus on the scientific developments of the period, which paved the way for life as we know it. This is the London of Jane Austen’s time, but it is not the London depicted in Austen’s novels. 

As ever, the rest of this post comes from the New Books Network.

Great Britain’s Regency Era (1811–1820) has long been wildly popular as a subject of historical fiction yet overly focused on the romance genre. The towering figures of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer have tended to dominate the field to the point where even novels that are not primarily romances exist within Austen’s world.

But as we can see from Andrea Penrose’s  Wrexford & Sloane mystery series, far more was going on during the Regency than parties and marriage politics. Penrose’s London is a gritty place filled with canny urchins, men and women of science, engineers and international businessmen, gamblers and disgraced lords and satirists who make their living off the foibles and follies of the well-to-do.

One such satirist is Charlotte Sloane—a young artist who writes under the pen name A.J. Quill. Her network of contacts—including the two urchins who live with her, known as Raven and Hawk—proves invaluable in untangling a series of murders, the first of which Bow Street is all too eager to blame on the Earl of Wrexford. She and Wrexford become reluctant partners, then friends, and by the time we reach book 5, Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens, they are planning their wedding.

Wrexford is an acclaimed amateur chemist, an interest that brings him into contact with most of London’s scientific elite and accounts for his and Charlotte’s attendance at a symposium being held at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew. The death of a prominent botanist, visiting from the United States (then at war with Britain), is first written off as the result of a weak heart. But certain clues point to murder, and Wrexford and Sloane’s friends and family urge them to investigate. They soon realize this crime may have international implications, and the hunt for the killer is on.

As with the Lady Sherlock mysteries, it’s best to read this series from beginning to end, as each book develops Charlotte’s and Wrexford’s relationship, revealing new insights into their past. The characters are fascinating, the plots fast-paced and complex, and the settings richly described. If you’ve been avoiding novels set in the Regency because you associate the era with pale and predictable romances, this series will open your eyes.

Image: The Great South Sea Caterpillar, Transformed into a Bath Butterfly (1795), James Gillray’s satirical portrait of Sir Joseph Banks, a famous botanist whose contributions to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew are mentioned in several of the Wrexford & Sloane novels, including Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens; public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this recommendation. A portrayal of Regency England without Austen-like romances? I really want to read this whole series right this minute.


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