Murder at Kensington Palace (Wrexford & Sloane #3) by Andrea Penrose

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Though Charlotte Sloane’s secret identity as the controversial satirical cartoonist A.J. Quill is safe with the Earl of Wrexford, she’s ill prepared for the rippling effects sharing the truth about her background has cast over their relationship. She thought a bit of space might improve the situation. But when her cousin is murdered and his twin brother is accused of the gruesome crime, Charlotte immediately turns to Wrexford for help in proving the young man’s innocence. Though she finds the brooding scientist just as enigmatic and intense as ever, their partnership is now marked by an unfamiliar tension that seems to complicate every encounter.

Despite this newfound complexity, Wrexford and Charlotte are determined to track down the real killer. Their investigation leads them on a dangerous chase through Mayfair’s glittering ballrooms and opulent drawing rooms, where gossip and rumors swirl to confuse the facts. Was her cousin murdered over a romantic rivalry . . . or staggering gambling debts? Or could the motive be far darker and involve the clandestine scientific society that claimed both brothers as members? The more Charlotte and Wrexford try to unknot the truth, the more tangled it becomes. But they must solve the case soon, before the killer’s madness seizes another victim…

Rating: B+

In Murder at Kensington Palace, the third book in Andrea Penrose’s Wrexford and Sloane series, the author once again sets an intriguing, well-conceived mystery against the backdrop of the scientific discovery and innovation taking place during the Regency era while also continuing to explore the shifting relationship between Mrs. Charlotte Sloane (aka satirist A.J. Quill) and the darkly sardonic Earl of Wrexford.  As the pair work together to clear the name of a young man accused of murdering his twin brother, Charlotte is forced to face the prospect of discarding her carefully guarded anonymity, while the Earl, a man who has always prided himself on his logical mind, finds himself in an unusual position of frustration and uncertainty.

Charlotte is working on her latest project when she hears that the murderer nicknamed the ‘Bloody Butcher’ has struck again, this time killing a young aristocrat whose body was found that morning in the gardens of Kensington Palace.  When one of her young wards explains that the victim had been in attendance at a scientific gathering hosted by the Duke of Sussex the previous evening, Charlotte immediately wonders if Wrexford had been there and if he might know something about it.  But she feels strangely awkward about asking the Earl for information; in fact, she hasn’t seen him for a couple of weeks, since their investigation into another murder (Murder at Half Moon Gate) almost cost Wrexford his life and led to their expressing certain … sentiments that perhaps neither of them were ready to bring out into the open.

“What a pair we are,” she muttered.  “Prickly, guarded, afraid of making ourselves vulnerable.”

When Wrexford arrives some time later, it’s with news that will quickly distract Charlotte from any ponderings over the nature of her feelings for him.  The murder victim was Cedric, Lord Chittenden, a young man from the North of England who had only recently come into his title; and his twin brother, Nicholas, has been arrested for the crime on account of their having been overheard having a disagreement at some point during the course of the previous evening.  Charlotte is adamant in her belief that the wrong man has been accused and that Nicholas could never have harmed his brother – but she won’t explain further or tell Wrexford what makes her so sure.

Like Charlotte, Wrexford is reluctant to look too closely at the things they said to each other in the heat of the moment, but her apparent lack of trust in him causes him to wonder if Charlotte may be having regrets and is now trying to put distance between them.  Not wanting her to retreat further, Wrexford decides not to push for information, instead deciding to wait until she’s ready to tell him what she needs to.  She has already revealed something of her past to him – she’s the daughter of an earl who, chafing at the restrictions and expectations constantly placed upon her, ran away with her drawing master and whose family subsequently disowned her.  Charlotte knows Wrexford can be trusted, but even so, is struggling to reconcile her need to remain independent and her need for help to prove Nicholas innocent.  Realising she can’t afford to hold back any longer, she tells Wrexford the truth – that Cedric and Nicholas are her cousins and that the three of them were childhood playmates.

Feeling as though they’re back on more of an even keel, Charlotte and Wrexford start to ask questions, Charlotte seeking information from the network of informants from whom she collects the gossip making the rounds on the London streets, and Wrexford in the scientific circles in which Chittenden and his brother moved since coming to London.  His own standing in the scientific community naturally opens doors, and his enquiries reveal a worrisome picture of Chittenden as a young man possessed of an almost fanatical desire to push scientific boundaries and prepared to go to extreme lengths in order to do so.  He also discovers that Chittenden had a rival for the affections of a certain young lady, and that he was owed a large sum of money by a man who seemed to be having trouble paying his gambling debts… could his murder have been motivated by love? Or money? Or are there darker, more clandestine forces at work?

Andrea Penrose has found a rather unique hook for this series in the way she incorporates an aspect of the Regency era that readers of novels set during that time don’t often come across; namely the fervour for scientific knowledge and advancement that was prevalent at the time.  Many of the characters featured in Murder at Kensington Palace are specifically interested in the experiments of Luigi Galvani and Giovanni Aldini, who had explored the possibility that electricity could be used to reanimate the dead – a concept made famous by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein (1817).

Through all of this is woven the continuing development of the relationship between Charlotte and Wrexford, both of whom are gradually acknowledging (to themselves) that they feel something more than friendship for each other, but are reluctant to take that first step towards becoming more.  Their feelings for one another are made clear through their thoughts and actions, although I have to say that I’d have liked things to have become a little more concrete by this stage. Still, there are positive developments in this book that make me think that’s not far off now.

The novel boasts a colourful secondary cast, including Charlotte’s two wards, Hawk and Raven (aka the Weasels) her housekeeper, McLellan, who is as much bodyguard as she is servant,  Wrexford’s friend  Kit Sheffield and his valet/assistant, Tyler; and they’re joined by the formidable Dowager Marquess of Peake, Charlotte’s aunt, a wonderfully forthright and shrewd lady I hope we’ll meet again in future books.

While the mystery in Murder at Kensington Palace is wrapped up by the end and the book could be read as a standalone, I’d recommend that anyone interested in trying this series should start at the beginning with Murder on Black Swan Lane in order to get the full picture of the relationship between the two principals.  Wrexford and Sloane make a great team, personally as well as investigatively, and I’m looking forward to the next instalment in the series.

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