London, 1887. As the city prepares to celebrate Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee, Veronica Speedwell is marking a milestone of her own. After burying her spinster aunt, the orphaned Veronica is free to resume her world travels in pursuit of scientific inquiry—and the occasional romantic dalliance. As familiar with hunting butterflies as she is fending off admirers, Veronica wields her butterfly net and a sharpened hatpin with equal aplomb, and with her last connection to England now gone, she intends to embark upon the journey of a lifetime.
But fate has other plans, as Veronica discovers when she thwarts her own abduction with the help of an enigmatic German baron with ties to her mysterious past. Promising to reveal in time what he knows of the plot against her, the baron offers her temporary sanctuary in the care of his friend Stoker—a reclusive natural historian as intriguing as he is bad-tempered. But before the baron can deliver on his tantalizing vow to reveal the secrets he has concealed for decades, he is found murdered. Suddenly Veronica and Stoker are forced to go on the run from an elusive assailant, wary partners in search of the villainous truth.
I admit it. When I saw that Deanna Raybourn was going to be writing another series of mysteries set in the Victorian era featuring an independently-minded female protagonist, my initial thought was – “how are these books going to be different to the Lady Julia ones?” But I enjoyed both those and the author’s recent forays into the 1920s, so I was eager to read A Curious Beginning regardless – and Ms Raybourn, if you ever read this review, I humbly beg your forgiveness for the crumb of doubt I entertained, because it’s a terrific book and one that I raced through and couldn’t put down.
For sure, there are echoes of the author’s previous work in her two principals – Veronica Speedwell is forthright, pragmatic and resourceful, and Stoker is darkly and piratically handsome with a murky past – but the resemblances to Julia and Brisbane end there; and not once after my initial comparison did I ever think of either of them when reading. Ms Raybourn also pulls a nice piece of gender/role-reversal by making Veronica the more hard-headed and down-to-earth of the two while Stoker, beneath his gruff exterior, is more emotional and a bit of a romantic on the quiet.
Veronica Speedwell is an orphan who was brought up by two ladies she calls aunts, but who are not actually related to her. They have always moved around a lot, which while not something she enjoyed at the time, Veronica can in retrospect see has allowed her to develop independence and self-reliance. As she grew older Veronica became more and more frustrated with the strictures placed upon a young woman’s freedom, and took up butterfly hunting as a means of escaping into the countryside while still doing something ostensibly ladylike. But her diversion very quickly became a passion, and at eighteen, Veronica forged out on her own, travelling to Switzerland in order to find specimens not found in Britain. Since then, she has travelled frequently, and to very exotic parts of the world in order to indulge her passion for lepidoptery – and also, on occasion, has indulged in discreet affairs with the men who take her fancy.
Her most recent expedition to Costa Rica had to be cut short because she was summoned home to the deathbed of her Aunt Nell (her Aunt Lucy having died some years before). Not long after her arrival, her aunt dies and the book opens just as the funeral ends. Heading home to her cottage for the last time, Veronica is startled to find that it has been ransacked. Not only that, the intruder is still in the house, and – rather unwisely she later realises – she goes after him intent on apprehending him. Unfortunately, however, she fails to do so, and instead finds herself being dragged away to a waiting carriage – when another man interrupts the abduction attempt and dispenses with Veronica’s would-be kidnapper. The gentleman, a distinguished, older man, introduces himself as Baron Maximilian von Stauffenbach and, insisting that Veronica’s life is in danger, insists she accompany him to London in his carriage.
Believing him to be suffering from a melodramatic delusion, but liking him nonetheless, Veronica agrees to go with him, secure in the knowledge that she has in her possession a number of weapons that she can bring out should the need arise. The baron continues to insist that her situation is perilous and hints that it is linked to the identities of her parents, whom Veronica never knew. The baron can tell her little, as it is not his secret to tell, but promises that he will reveal all as soon as he is permitted to do so. In the meantime, he is taking her to a place of safety, to the care of the man he trusts above all others.
Veronica’s first glimpse of Stoker is of his muscled, tattooed back, gleaming with sweat as he struggles with some sort of animal skeleton. She quickly realises that he, like her, is a scientist and student of natural history, and they just as quickly fall to needling each other, especially when Veronica insists that some of his specimens are incorrectly labelled and poorly cared for. Stoker is, quite simply, mean, moody and magnificent – both in Veronica’s and this reader’s opinion (!) and because he owes Max a debt of honour, he agrees to take Veronica in until such time as arrangements can be made for her safety.
An uneasy kind of mutual respect develops between the couple to the extent that Stoker allows Veronica to assist him with his current project – but when, just a day or so later, the pair sees the news of the Baron’s murder in the paper, Stoker very quickly hustles them out of London. Veronica might not believe herself to be in danger, but Max certainly did, and if he did, then so does Stoker. Added to this is the fact that Stoker knows his association with Max, and certain events from his past serve to make him a likely suspect, and the stage is set for a fast-paced, thoroughly enjoyable adventure story which sees Veronica and Stoker facing peril, getting each other out of scrapes and eventually laying the foundations for a deep and lasting trust between them.
Although I’ve indicated the sensuality level for this story at N/A – there’s no need to be disappointed, because even though Veronica and Stoker don’t so much as exchange a kiss in this book, the sexual tension between them is so thick that it could be cut with a knife. Their quickfire verbal exchanges are full of wit and humour, and the relationship that develops between them beneath the surface sparring has some deeply heartfelt moments, such as when Veronica realises that they are alike in many ways, and how much she will miss him when their adventure is over. Ms Raybourn has very cleverly created an air of mystery around Stoker, revealing some things about his past in this book, and leaving others which we – and Veronica – are left desperately wanting to know, for future stories.
However, Stoker isn’t the only one with secrets in his past which could work against him; the difference is that he knows what his are, while Veronica has no idea why there are people out there trying to do away with her. The story that emerges about her origins is wonderfully audacious (although, given the personage involved, quite feasible, I suppose!) and the rest of that particular storyline is very well thought-out and the background well-researched.
Veronica is a terrific heroine – outspoken, practical and unsentimental – but there were times I felt she was bordering on caricature and her unconventionality began to seem like artifice. I got that she was an unusual young woman quite early on and didn’t need to be reminded of it quite so often, but that’s a minor criticism, because A Curious Beginning is a cracking read and one I’m recommending wholeheartedly.