Veronica Speedwell Returns to Track Butterflies and Solve a Conventional Mystery
Deanna Raybourn’s historical mysteries already have a loyal following, but A Dangerous Collaboration, the fourth installment in the Veronica Speedwell series, arrives with renewed interest and heightened expectations now that the previous book, A Treacherous Curse, has been nominated for the Edgar Award. Happily, Raybourn has written a book that’s sufficiently self-contained; newcomers to the series won’t get too lost navigating Veronica’s world. But it’s sure to divide fans, because it sacrifices the sparkling originality of Raybourn’s previous books for a more traditional and accessible narrative.
Raybourn—who previously authored the magnificent Lady Julia Grey mysteries—is incapable of writing Mary Sues. Veronica, a prototypical “New Woman” of 1880s London, comes complete with a superhero-like costume and a secret identity of sorts: an illustrious (if illegitimate) lineage uncovered in the first book of the series. A lepidopterist by trade, Veronica travels the world in search of rare butterflies for collectors, who fund her globetrotting lifestyle. As sexually adventurous as she is physically daring, she uses her far-flung expeditions as a means of discreetly collecting lovers like so many exotic specimens—much to the discomfort of her partner in crime-solving and slow-burn love interest, Stoker, a scarred, growly former Royal Navy surgeon turned explorer-cum-taxidermist. If this all seems a bit too studiously quirky for your taste, the more conventionally enthralling Lady Julia awaits.
As sexually adventurous as she is physically daring, she uses her far-flung expeditions as a means of discreetly collecting lovers like so many exotic specimens
Despite his occasional prudishness, Stoker proves as impervious to Victorian social norms as Veronica herself. When they first meet in A Curious Beginning, she observes: “Stoker’s raffish appearance—the pierced lobe, the unruly locks, the glowering expressions—were not merely expressions of his own tastes and values; they might well be a sort of protective coloration, taken on to shield himself from the predation of voracious ladies. Of course, they would also serve to attract and entirely different sort of woman, the kind not easily put off by a little handsome savagery. For those of us who liked our men well roughened, his appearance was the fulfillment of a lifetime’s dreaming of pirates and ne’er-do-well rogues.” Together, Stoker and Veronica make a brainy if cantankerous pair in the Mulder and Scully vein, with all the attendant sexual tension.
At the outset of the new book, the two have been commissioned to catalogue a private museum of moldering natural specimens, marooning them in soggy London. When a brief butterfly-hunting expedition to Madeira ends in failure, Veronica wonders if she’s gone soft, chafing at the “the complacent little life I had built within these walls” while simultaneously ignoring “that little demanding voice from a place that longed for adventure.”
So when Stoker’s suave, titled older brother Tiberius invites her to escape the city for a house party on a windswept Cornish island, she jumps at the chance, ostensibly lured by the promise of larvae from a rare glasswing butterfly. Inevitably, the house party turns out to be a cover for more nefarious goings-on. The host unveils a twist on the classic locked-room mystery, reuniting the guests from his wedding three years previously, at which the bride vanished, never to be seen again.
Thus begins a pastiche of Agatha Christie, Daphne Du Maurier, and Sherlock Holmes—a good pastiche, but a pastiche nonetheless. Raybourn layers on the Gothic tropes: seances, a poison garden, fortune tellers, secret passages, priest holes, sinister servants, ghostly apparitions. But the stakes never raise; the central mystery is a cold case, and there aren’t enough suspects to keep readers guessing long. Raybourn, a masterful storyteller and wordsmith, marries historical romance and cozy mystery better than anyone. In this instance, however, both the romance and the mystery feel artificially drawn out. Veronica solves the case, and Raybourn finally, swooningly answers the question of will-they-or-won’t-they. But neither was ever really in doubt.
Like it or not, though, A Dangerous Collaboration will leave you breathless for the next installment from Raybourn, which promises to include not only the culmination of four books’ worth of flirtatious banter, but a brush with an adversary worthy of our intrepid heroine: Jack the Ripper.