Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Dark World of Intrigue: A Review of The Dark Enquiry by Deanna Raybourn

Title: The Dark Enquiry
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Edition: Paperback
Publisher: MIRA 2011
Pages: 387
Challenges: Read Your Own Books Challenge; GoodReads 2011 Reading Challenge
How I Came by This Book: This was actually one of the last books that I purchased from Borders before it closed. I had been anxiously awaiting it's release but was financially incapable of getting a copy until a few months after it came out.

About the Author: A sixth-generation native Texan, Deanna Raybourn graduated from the University of Texas at San Antonio with a double major in English and history and an emphasis on Shakespearean studies. She taught high school English for three years in San Antonio before leaving education to pursue a career as a novelist. Deanna makes her home in Virginia, where she lives with her husband and daughter, and is hard at work on the next installment in the award-winning Lady Julia Grey series.

Synopsis: Partners now in marriage and in trade, Lady Julia and Nicholas Brisbane have finally returned from abroad to set up housekeeping in London. But merging their respective collections of gadgets, pets and servants leaves little room for the harried newlyweds themselves, let alone Brisbane's private enquiry business.

Among the more unlikely clients: Julia's very proper brother, Lord Bellmont, who swears Brisbane to secrecy about his case. Not about to be left out of anything concerning her beloved--if eccentric--family, spirited Julia soon picks up the trail of the investigation.

It leads to the exclusive Ghost Club, where the alluring Madame Séraphine holds evening séances...and not a few powerful gentlemen in thrall. From this eerie enclave unfolds a lurid tangle of dark deeds, whose tendrils crush reputations and throttle trust.

Shocked to find their investigation spun into salacious newspaper headlines, bristling at the tension it causes between them, the Brisbanes find they must unite or fall. For Bellmont's sake--and more--they'll face myriad dangers born of dark secrets, the kind men kill to keep...

Review: I've gushed about Deanna Raybourn's novels several times on this blog (see especially my reviews of Dark Road to Darjeeling and The Dead Travel Fast), so I'll spare you yet another hagiography of the woman who has become my favorite contemporary female author. I'll just reiterate that she is an insanely talented writer whose novels transcend genres and transport the reader right into the heart of the worlds that she creates.

So it was again with The Dark Enquiry. This time, however, I felt that Raybourn's plot was a bit thin and her minor characters not as well fleshed out as they have been in the past. While I don't think any of her suspects could ever be as vivacious and detailed as they were in Dark Road to Darjeeling, the line-up of would-be murderers and the bit players in her recent murder mystery paled in comparison to any of the characters I'd seen before. They were, of course, unique and could have been fairly interesting had it not been that the nature of her story caused them to disappear soon after they were introduced. Instead of a complex tangle of competing motives that continued straight to the end, the murder suspects this time came and went almost as if this were a TV procedural.

There were some incredible new characters introduced this time around--most notably the mysterious Sir Morgan and Lady Julia's new footmen, Pigeon and Swan--and many of the returning characters, especially those in Lady Julia's own family, were welcome sights for those who have been following the series from the beginning. The Roma camp that plays an integral role in the novel featured some interesting characters from Brisbane's past as well. Still, after how deftly Raybourn juggled competing story lines in her last Lady Julia novel, The Dark Enquiry seemed a little flat, at least in the middle of the book.

The beginning and the end were both pure, unadulterated fun and were much more similar to the other novels. They featured the same witty banter, thrilling action, and gasp-worthy surprises that I've come to expect. Beginning with a literal explosion and ending with a figuratively explosive unveiling of secrets, this novel held my attention for most of the narrative. It was just some of the middle bits that I felt dragged. This time around I really had no idea who was behind the nefarious plot and when it was revealed I was more shocked than I ever have been by a Raybourn novel. Everything about the ending was satisfying (except for one or two things that I can't get into here) and I found myself coming to appreciate some of the things that had seemed superfluous in the rest of the book.

I guess what I'm really trying to say is that The Dark Enquiry is a bit of a quagmire. The somewhat-dragging middle contains a lot of things that are essential for the ending, which shows that Raybourn hasn't lost her touch. It's imperative that readers keep this in mind because otherwise they may find their attention flagging a little. While I won't say that on the whole this is her best novel, I will say that what happens in the latter part of the book makes it well worth reading.

I think if I could raise any real issue with the novel, it was that Lady Julia was more than a little aggravating at times. Her desire to be a part of Brisbane's life and work while not realizing how important she is to him made her say and do things that were, frankly, obnoxious. I found myself wishing I could hit her upside the head a few times, to be honest. She is such an amazing character and I would hate to see her devolve into one of those silly female characters who thinks of herself only in relation to the man to whom she is married. Brisbane remains one of the strongest male characters I've come across in years and I don't want Lady Julia to lose the strength that I've come to associate with her.

Another novel is hinted at on the last page of The Dark Enquiry and I'm yet again anxiously awaiting it, as well as any other book that Raybourn has kicking around in that brilliant head of hers. I'd like to reread this one again sometime, knowing what I know now about where it all ends up, just so that I can fully appreciate the intricacies of the text. I think this is one of those books where a second read is called for (much like Terry Pratchett's Hogfather, which I didn't like as much the first time as I did the second).

I'm giving The Dark Enquiry 4 out of 5 Gabriels. While there are better novels in the series, I still can't rate this one too low because, honestly, it's still one of the best mystery/historical fiction novels on the market today.



  1. I know what you mean about not wanting to rate books in a series you love too low. Sometimes it's better just to look at them as an ongoing story, sometimes there'll be lows but you know it's outweighed by the wonderfulness of the characters you've come to know.

  2. Ellie: Agreed. I've found that even the brilliant Terry Pratchett has some misses from time to time. No author can be perfect 100% of their career. It's about growth, about finding what works and what doesn't. Otherwise, it's just formulaic writing.