Book Review: Deanna Raybourn – Silent in the Grave
On a blog post, now forgotten, someone asked about memorable first lines of novels. Several commenters mentioned Deanna Raybourn‘s Silent in the Grave as it starts with: “To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor.” It’s catchy, but then a lot of novels have catchy first lines. Take Moby Dick, for instance. But I’ve never had much inclination to read that tome–the blame, unfortunately, lies with a certain economics professor who spent most of class time ranting about the financial feasibility of whaling. Anyway, I had mostly forgotten about that blog post until this week when I came across Raybourn’s book. And I thought, “Ah, this sounds vaguely familiar.”
I usually pay attention to the book summaries and blurbs first. And then perhaps read other reviews to see whether or not I’d like the book. This time, I started reading the first chapter and promptly forgot about putting it down until I realized it was 1:00 AM and that I needed to get some sleep if I wanted to get to lab the next morning in some sort of coherent state.
When Julia Grey’s husband Edward expires during a dinner party, it appears on the surface that the Greys’ hereditary heart ailment has struck again. But the private inquiry agent that he has hired, the enigmatic Nicholas Brisbane, claims that Edward may have been murdered. Still unsettled by her newly widowed state, she denies such a thing could be possible and sends Brisbane away. It is only until one year after mourning, while cleaning out her deceased husband’s desk, that she finds a threatening note indicating that Brisbane might have been right after all. She brings the note to Brisbane to enlist his help on finding her husband’s murder. However, the more they delve into the mystery, the more Julia learns how little she knew about her husband and the people around her.
There are several thematic threads running through the novel that I think Raybourn did very well. One was Julia’s personal growth. In the beginning, she is a rather timid character, allowing herself to be buffeted by circumstance and the stronger personalities of others. Even her sister Portia accuses her of being a mouse. But as she realizes her independence, she grows in her confidence to the point that she stands as an intellectual equal to the tempestuous Brisbane. The relationship between Julia and Nicholas was complex as it was interesting. The pairing reminded me vaguely of Amelia Peabody and Radcliffe Emerson in Elizabeth Peters’ Crocodile on the Sandbank. But while Crocodile‘s main characters ended up in a rather straightforward happy ending, the characters in this novel were not so simple. Their interactions with each other are volatile, almost antagonistic, fraught with an attraction that neither could act upon. Despite her personal growth, Julia still retains insecurities and doubts about Brisbane’s motives–as his actions and demeanor mark him as dangerous.
The mystery portion of the novel was rather–expected. While I enjoyed journeying with the main characters in gathering the clues and putting the puzzle pieces together, I had already guessed at the murderer and the motive. Whether I’m good at deducing mysteries or that I was just lucky, it doesn’t matter much in this case. Perhaps this might have been a glaring flaw in a purely mystery novel with no subplots going on. But in this novel, the mystery was secondary at times–as it helped, rather, to spur on character development. Speaking of characters, I enjoyed the secondaries, particularly Julia’s eccentric family. And Brisbane was quite mysterious and brooding–a cross between a Bronte hero and Sherlock Holmes with a liberal dose of Frederick Pope. My biggest disappointment was that the illness he was suffering from wasn’t malaria, rather something else that would fit perfectly in a Gothic romance.
Will I remember the first line of this novel like so many other people who have read it? Due to my terrible memory for literary quotes (although one should rest assured that my memory for science-y things are much better), probably not. However, I will remember that it was fun and engrossing–the first book I managed to finish after two months of exasperation with other novels. While witty repartee may be the only thing a reader gets from your average novelist, Raybourn ably includes enough detail and style to immerse one into her version of Victorian England that is an intriguing mix of gentility and pretense, unconventionality and action. Now, if only the local bookstores got their acts together and stocked Silent in the Sanctuary….