February, 1906. As the personal secretary of the recently departed Duke of Olympia—and a woman of scrupulous character—Miss Emmeline Rose Truelove never expected her duties to involve steaming through the Mediterranean on a private yacht, under the prodigal eye of one Lord Silverton, the most charmingly corrupt bachelor in London. But here they are, improperly bound on a quest to find the duke’s enigmatic heir, current whereabouts unknown.
An expert on anachronisms, Maximilian Haywood was last seen at an archaeological dig on the island of Crete. And from the moment Truelove and Silverton disembark, they are met with incidents of a suspicious nature: a ransacked flat, a murdered government employee, an assassination attempt. As they travel from port to port on Max’s trail, piecing together the strange events of the days before his disappearance, Truelove will discover the folly of her misconceptions—about the whims of the heart, the motives of men, and the nature of time itself…
Having previously enjoyed Juliana Gray’s historical romances, I was intrigued when I learned she would be venturing into the sub-genre of historical mysteries with her latest series. It is connected to her Princess in Hiding books by virtue of the fact that the plot of A Most Extraordinary Pursuit revolves around the search for the new Duke of Olympia and that the son of the Duke of Ashland (How to Tame Your Duke), Freddie, Lord Silverton, is one of the protagonists. I was expecting an historical mystery – but when, in the first chapter, the heroine, Miss Emmeline Truelove, has a conversation with the late Queen Victoria, I realised I was going to have to adjust my expectations somewhat.
It’s 1906, and the imposing, silver-haired, Machiavellian colossus that was the Duke of Olympia is dead at the age of eighty-six, having expired while quietly fishing for trout. (Or so it seems.) His heir is his grandnephew, Maximillian Haywood who spends most of his time on archaeological expeditions outside England, but who is now expected to return to assume his responsibilities and title. The trouble is that nobody has heard from Max for some months; his last communication arrived shortly before Christmas nearly three months earlier, and he is not where he is supposed to be (at a dig at Knossos on the Greek island of Crete).
Miss Emmeline Truelove acted as the duke’s personal secretary for the past six years, having taken over that position after the death her father (actually, her step-father) who had previously fulfilled that role. She is practical, efficient and utterly no-nonsense, performing her role admirably – notwithstanding her tendency to see dead people.
Her late majesty has warned Miss Truelove that the dowager duchess is going to ask her to perform a certain task which she, Emmeline, must under no circumstances accept. But when the dowager’s request turns out to be that she track down the new duke and bring him home, Truelove doesn’t see how she can possibly refuse – although she knows a moment’s hesitation when she learns she will be accompanied by the unspeakably gorgeous Marquess of Silverton, who, at first glance, seems to have barely two braincells to rub together.
But the duchess has everything planned out, and within the hour, Truelove finds herself, Silverton at her side, being driven to Southampton where they will board the duke’s yacht for their journey to Crete.
Stopping off in Athens, the pair pay a visit to Max’s flat near the Acropolis. There is no trace of Max, but the place has clearly been ransacked; and this, together with the mysterious death of a government official with whom Max was associated, followed by an attack on them at their hotel, convinces Truelove and Silverton that there is more to Max’s disappearance than meets the eye. Silverton insists they return to the yacht and make for Crete and the archaeological site of Knossos, where they hope to make contact with Max’s assistant. While there, they stay at a villa on the site where Silverton proceeds to charm the attractive young housekeeper into giving them some useful information, much to Truelove’s chagrin. She has already worked out that Silverton is far from the buffoon he pretends to be, but realising he uses his charm and obvious physical attractions to seduce information out of women doesn’t sit at all well with her. Not that she’s jealous. No. Not at all.
The story shifts from Crete to Naxos (and as a side note, I have to say that I liked this aspect of the story, as it brought back memories of my own island-hopping holidays!) as Silverton and Truelove continue to follow Max’s trail while trying to stay at least one step ahead of whoever is following them. I can’t say much more without going into spoiler territory; suffice to say that when they do eventually catch up with Max, it leads to a momentous and fantastical discovery that I assume is going to be addressed in future books in the series.
I said at the beginning of this review that I had to adjust my expectations somewhat after the first couple of chapters, because A Most Unexpected Pursuit is not exactly the ‘straight’ historical mystery both the cover and the book blurb suggest. Not only does Truelove have conversations with the late Queen Victoria, she has them with her late step-father as well; strange artefacts, time-travel and mythological beings all make an appearance (kudos to Ms. Gray for the Downton Abbey reference!) and although the principal storyline – the discovery of Max’s whereabouts – is concluded here, the book throws up more questions than it answers. While I accept that is normal for the first book in a series that will feature ongoing plotlines, I would have liked answers to perhaps one or two more questions in this one.
There are romantic elements to the story, but they’re not the main focus. There’s a nice frisson of attraction between Truelove and Silverton which definitely has the potential to turn into something more down the line, but there’s not so much as an HFN in sight by the end of this book. They work well as a team, however and play to each other’s strengths; and while Truelove is perhaps a bit overly prim and proper, I liked them both as individuals and as a working couple. Silverton is smart, funny and protective, and although we get the odd glimpse of a darker side to him, it’s fleeting, and for the most part, he’s the perfect gentleman spy – hiding the fact that he’s a clever strategist and lethal killer behind a foppish, Bertie Wooster-ish exterior. Truelove is straightforward and supremely capable, forever quashing Silverton’s attempts to flirt with her in the attempt to deny that she’s well and truly smitten. Her exchanges with her late majesty are quite funny at times – but we’re not told whether these are hallucinations or something else, which made it a bit difficult to get a good handle on her as a character.
I did enjoy reading A Most Extraordinary Pursuit and it has certainly whetted my appetite for future stories, but I can’t deny that I was almost as much in the dark about some aspects of it at the end of the book as I was at the beginning! It’s fun, quirky and perhaps a bit silly, but it’s beautifully written and Truelove’s narrative voice is rather unique; somewhat starchy but dryly humorous and insightful. I was most definitely entertained and will be reading the next book, but I’d just remind anyone thinking about picking this one up that it’s not your conventional historical mystery. Once you’ve accepted that, however, enjoy the banter, embrace the quirkiness, picture the lovely locations and go with the flow!