Books: Victorian sleuth probes Venice’s mysteries with ladylike aplomb

Monday, October 22, 2012 at 12:50am
By Faye Jones Chapter16.org

When Lady Emily Hargreaves heads to Italy, it’s a fair bet that she isn’t on vacation. In fact, Emily — the heroine of Death in the Floating City, Tasha Alexander’s seventh Victorian mystery — arrives in Venice to solve a murder. To find the killer, she must investigate not only those around her but also the lives of star-crossed lovers who lived centuries before. Fans of Alexander, a former Franklin resident, know Emily will manage it all with charm, intelligence and ladylike decorum.

The trouble begins when Emma Barozzi’s father-in-law is murdered, and her husband flees the scene. Though she does not have fond memories of Emma, a childhood companion, Lady Emily agrees to help and arrives in Venice intending to put old battles aside. Emma clearly has a different intention: “I simply had no one else to turn to,” she snipes. “I suppose that ought not surprise me. After all, what lady of my rank would associate with persons who investigate crimes? That I know even one is astonishing.” But if Emma is less than welcoming, Emily soon finds a more kindred spirit in Donata Caravello, the daughter of a bookseller, who offers to help Emily with her investigation. And this investigation will take Emily from the homes of the very rich to the very poor — and to a bordello, as well.

Tasha Alexander has hit her stride in Death in the Floating City. She seamlessly pieces together Lady Emily’s murder investigation with sections from a manuscript written centuries earlier. While connected to the plot, this manuscript also supports an ongoing theme in the Lady Emily series: the subtle examination of strictures placed on women by their societies. (Alexander is careful to keep her heroine’s thoughts and behavior well within the world view of her own time, however: Like most Victorian ladies, for example, Emily seems oblivious to her own servants’ plight.)

But that’s one of the charms of Alexander’s novels: Emily’s growth has been gradual and organic. She understands the unfairness of the social system but will use it to her advantage in investigations. She is aware that her mystery-solving avocation is supported by her own financial freedom and an unusually understanding husband, but her self-awareness has limits. She may turn her back on some of the prohibitions of her day — “I tipped my chin toward the sky, smiling as I recalled the incalculable number of times my mother had warned me to be vigilant about guarding my complexion” and “If I were going to abandon bits of my regimented upbringing, I might as well fling the bulk of it out the proverbial window and start wearing comfortable boots as well” — but there’s a limit to her open-mindedness. As she walks through the halls of a house in search of its master, Emily encounters a kind of art not commonly available in the drawing rooms of London: “A gilded plaster rose filled the center of the ceiling and was surrounded by frescoes that could only be described as blatantly erotic,” Alexander’s narrator says. “I moved on as quickly as I could, feeling my face grow hot with embarrassment.”

Lady Emily Hargreaves is a progressive Victorian, but she’s still a Victorian.

 

 

• Tasha Alexander will discuss Death in the Floating City at Parnassus Books on October 24 at 6:30 p.m.

For more local book coverage, please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.