Title: Dark Road to Darjeeling
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Publisher: MIRA Books (2010)
How I Came By This Book: I've been following Deanna Raybourn's career ever since shortly after her first novel, Silent in the Grave, was published. I finally purchased this novel earlier this year at Borders and am only now getting around to it (despite the fact that her latest novel was just released and I'm dying to read it).
Challenges: Read Your Own Books Challenge; GoodReads 2011 Reading Challenge
Synopsis: After eight idyllic months in the Mediterranean, Lady Julia Grey and her detective husband are ready to put there investigative talents to work once more. At the urging of Julia's eccentric family, they hurry to India to aid an old friend, the newly widowed Jane Cavendish. Living on the Cavendish tea plantation with the remnants of her husband's family, Jane is consumed with the impending birth of her child--and with discovering the truth about her husband's death. Was he murdered for his estate? And if he was, could Jane and her unborn child be next?
Amid the lush foothills of the Himalayas, dark deeds are buried and malicious thoughts flourish. The Brisbanes uncover secrets and scandal, illicit affairs and twisted legacies. In this remote and exotic place, exploration is perilous and discovery, deadly. The danger is palpable and, if they are not careful, Julia and Nicholas will not live to celebrate their first anniversary.
Review: I first read a Deanna Raybourn novel, Silent in the Grave, back in 2007, shortly after it was first published. I'm not sure what caught my eye (perhaps the title?), but when I plucked it from my hometown library's shelves and perused the first page, I knew I had to read it. The first two sentences of her first novel embodied everything that I've come to love about her as a writer:
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. (p. 13)Since then I have devoured every one of her novels, including her first (and currently only) stand-alone, The Dead Travel Fast.
Raybourn has managed to become, in a relatively short period of time, my favorite contemporary female writer. I will admit that I'm not a fan of historical fiction, mysteries, or romance novels, of which her novels contain an element of each. Yet, her skill as a writer, her unique voice, her twisting plots, and her endearing and unforgettable characters shatter every preconceived notion that I've ever held about these genres. Dark Road to Darjeeling stays well within the realm of mind-blowing fiction that I have come to expect from her.
I was actually reluctant to read it at first. It's why, I think, I took so long to purchase it and even longer to read it. It wasn't that I was worried that Raybourn would disappoint (I'm not sure she's capable of it), it was that at the end of Silent in the Moor, the third book in the Lady Julia Grey series, something happened that I was afraid would throw a wrench into the series: Lady Julia finally married Nicholas Brisbane. The sexual tension, snippy/snappy dialogue, and the frustration each of these characters caused in the other was one of the main reasons why they have become one of my favorite pairs in literature. Raybourn's ability to maintain this dynamic even after they had come together at last is due, I believe, to two factors. One, Raybourn knows these characters and has superbly shaped them into who they are through careful progress during the first three novels. Two, Julia and Brisbane's unconventional natures and their mild lack of disregard for social mores would make it almost impossible for them to be changed simply because they share a last name.
As with the rest of the series, Raybourn's characters, even her minor ones, are unimaginably complex, realistic, and memorable. Each one is given a voice, a history, a goal, a purpose. No one is extraneous and no one is thoroughly unlikable. Some of the standouts in Dark Road to Darjeeling are the mysterious White Rajah, the odd Cassandra Pennyfeather, and the inebriate Dr. Llewellyn. My favorite, however, is Cassandra's nature-loving son, Robin. Reminiscent of L'Engle's Charles Wallace (A Wrinkle in Time), the young Robin quickly endears himself to the reader because of his intelligence, his maturity, and his sweet nature.
Of course, some of Raybourn's usual characters show up, namely, Julia's sister Portia, her brother Plum, and Portia's ex-lover, Jane. These familiar faces are welcome in such a strange land with such a strange cast of characters and the plot line focusing on Jane's widowhood, impending motherhood, and reconnection with Portia is beautifully written. Having always been a fan of Portia and Jane's relationship, especially in such an uptight era as the Victorian age, I was devastated to learn that Jane had left and even more so to discover that she had married. Watching the two of them together again was comforting and the fact that I personally cared about Jane's well-being made the mystery of who had murdered her husband even more of a pressing issue than if it had been a new character or one that I didn't particularly like.
While we are on the subject, I will reiterate again what I think is one of Raybourn's biggest strengths: she always keeps you guessing. I stopped reading mystery novels when I started being able to tell, within the first half of the book, who had done it. After four Lady Julia novels, I have gotten better at discerning who the killer might be...but usually only about ten or twenty pages before it's revealed. Even still, I am never quite sure until it's finally confirmed. The end of Silent in the Grave had me literally gasping because I had never suspected the real killer for an instant. Dark Road to Darjeeling had me silently begging that my guess was wrong...which, sadly, it wasn't. In all of her novels, Raybourn deftly assembles a cast of characters, each with a possible motive, and then tangles their stories up in knots as Julia and Brisbane try to figure it all out, leaving the reader anxious to know because he or she seriously has no idea. It is telling of her skill that this is the case, especially in an age of cookie cutter murder mysteries and episodes of crime dramas where it's usually the first or second person that they interrogate. Anyone looking for a real mystery should definitely give these novels a try.
Everything about this novel is enjoyable: her sense of humor, her ability to juxtapose the lightness of life and the darkness of death, her vivid descriptions that create the locations her characters visit in your head as clearly as if you were standing beside them. You can smell the mountain air, taste the pungent tea, hear the roar of the tiger. Very few authors immerse you so fully into an environment without long, wordy descriptions; Raybourn is one of the most skillful at doing so.
The last thing I would like to note is how well she follows tragedy with comedy within this novel. It has a truly tragic ending, one that I didn't foresee and which touched me deeply. Yet, only about five pages later she has you laughing again, not forgetting what you have just read but allowing you a respite from the grief that the characters (and the reader) feel. It is the resolution of the catharsis that gives the reader a satisfying feeling even after such a crushing blow has been delivered.
I'm giving Dark Road to Darjeeling 5 out of 5 stars. This is one series which I believe anyone (regardless of age, race, gender, or reading preferences) can enjoy. If a sci-fi-loving guy like me can fall in love with these books, I'd bet that most people could, too.
PS: Here's a link to Deanna's website and blog. I'm also giving her her own tag because, let's face it, she's one of the only authors other than Neil Gaiman that I talk about on a regular basis.