Victorian adventuress and butterfly hunter Veronica Speedwell receives an impossible task—saving society art patron Miles Ramsforth from execution, who stands accused of the brutal murder of his mistress Artemisia. Together with her natural historian colleague Stoker, Veronica races against time to find the true murderer—a ruthless villain who not only took Artemisia’s life in cold blood but is happy to see Ramsforth hang for the crime.
A Perilous Undertaking is the second book in Deanna Raybourn’s series of Victorian mysteries featuring the intrepid Veronica Speedwell, lepidopterist and lady adventurer and her friend and colleague Revelstoke Templeton-Vane, known as Stoker – the scion of a noble family from whom he ran away to join the Navy and who has since made himself a name as a natural historian.
Both characters were very well introduced in the previous book, A Curious Beginning, so while this one can be read as a standalone in terms of the mystery, readers will get a lot more out of the books if read in order, as the mystery, while entertaining, is, to my mind, secondary to the continuing development of the unconventional relationship between Veronica and Stoker. Added to this is the gradual drip-feeding of information about Stoker’s past – a past that has obviously been full of heartbreak and betrayal – which is both masterful and incredibly frustrating, as Ms. Raybourn teases us with hints without revealing all – although she does build on what we learned about him in the last book.
The same is true of Veronica. She does have her secrets, but seems generally much more straightforward. She’s intelligent, outspoken and adventurous; she has travelled widely on her lepidoptery expeditions, she’s – discreetly – taken lovers (albeit never in England and never Englishmen abroad), and at the end of the last book, was revealed to be the natural daughter of Edward, Prince of Wales. She is still coming to terms with that knowledge; she knows she will never be acknowledged, and nor does she want to be – and she is still furious at the fact that she was offered hush money (which she rejected) in exchange for never revealing the truth of her birth.
So when, at the beginning of this story she is summoned to meet with a mysterious woman who turns out to be her aunt Louise, Veronica is not best pleased. The woman is imperious, brusque and condescending, but she informs Veronica that without her help, an innocent man will shortly go to the gallows for murder. Miles Ramforth is a friend of the princess’ and he will hang for the murder of his pregnant mistress in a week’s time – but Louise knows for certain that he is not guilty and wants Veronica to prove it. Louise makes it clear that she will not reveal the reason that she is certain Miles did not commit the crime – and I admit that I rather wanted Veronica to tell Louise where to stick it, because she was obviously withholding crucial information.
Anyway. Miles and his lover were part of a well-known ‘commune’ of bohemians and artists who gather under the auspices of the famous painter, Sir Frederick Havelock at Havelock House in London (which the author based on the home of the renowned artist Sir Frederick Leighton), so it’s there that Veronica and Stoker begin their investigations. There’s absolutely no doubt that Ms. Raybourn knows how to write a rollicking mystery story which keeps twisting and turning right up until the last moment, but it’s the relationship between Veronica and Stoker – and Stoker himself, such an adorable mixture of brooding, sexy and sweet – that are the big draws for me.
The author has cleverly engaged in a bit of role reversal, with Veronica usually being the one to make a risqué comment or engage in a bit of flirtation while Stoker is the one to blush or change the subject. Veronica makes absolutely no bones about her interest in men and sex – and there is quite a lot of talk about carnal matters in the book – and it’s very clear that although she’s definitely interested in getting Stoker into bed, her “no Englishmen” rule keeps her from extending that particular invitation. Plus, there’s also the fact that neither of them has ever experienced the sort of relationship they are building between them, and neither of them wants to risk it. Ms. Raybourn does an excellent job in conveying the truth and depth of their friendship; there’s the real sense that these are two people who understand each other at an instinctual level:
“Whatever this thing is that makes us different, this thing that makes quicksilver of us when the rest of the world is mud, it binds us. To break that would be to fly in the face of nature.”
In spite of that, however, the sexual tension between them is intense and if and when they do get it together romantically, I can see them continuing just as they are in every other aspect of their lives. They are strong, fiercely intelligent characters who aren’t afraid to challenge each other and don’t give a fig for what anyone else thinks of them; they trust each other absolutely and depend on each other without being dependent on one another, if that makes any sense. They know the other is there for them; they don’t need each other precisely, but they both recognise that their life is richer and more complete now they’ve found each other.
Those are all the really good things about the book. But there are a few things that bugged me enough to make me lower my final grade a bit. In my review of A Curious Beginning, I said of Veronica:
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
And I’d say the same thing here. Almost every character has something to say about Veronica which – even when it’s intended to be insulting – is meant to show how thoroughly Unconventional and Not Proper she is. And if it’s not someone else, then it’s Veronica herself extolling her eccentricity and achievements, which strays dangerously close to Mary Sue territory. The thing is, this is the second book in a series, and while I know that authors who write series also have to try to write each book so that a newbie can jump in, those of us who have read the first book are already well aware of Veronica’s idiosyncrasies and the way she enjoys flouting the conventions of society – so we don’t need to be hit over the head with it quite so frequently.
I also feel that while we get to know a little more about Stoker’s past – we meet all his brothers (there are three of them) in this book – Veronica is pretty much as she was in the first book and her character has developed little. Right at the end of A Perilous Undertaking, she reveals something to Stoker that she is not ready to discuss, so there is potential for growth in the next story (I hope); but ultimately, I’d have liked a little more character development and introspection instead the continual reminders as to how wonderful and unusual Veronica is.
But the things I liked definitely outweighed the things I didn’t, and this is still a book I’d recommend to fans of the author and historical mysteries in general. It’s very well written, the dialogue and snarky banter between Veronica and Stoker in particular is excellent and the mystery element is nicely plotted and executed. While it didn’t work quite as well for me as the previous book, it’s an enjoyable read and I’m already eagerly anticipating the next in the series.