Tour’s Books Blog

April 24, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn

Every so often I read a book that gets excellent reviews, great word of mouth and is hugely popular and I find myself far less enamored of it than I expected.  Perhaps my expectations are too high, or maybe the style just does not suit me.  Whatever the difference in perception is, I find myself in that position with this review.  I wanted to love this book, be enthralled, swept away, but I was not.  The sharp wit that opens the book only visits off and on thereafter.

Silent in the Grave has a brilliant opening:

To say I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate.  Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching on the floor.

Unfortunately, the next 100+ pages were remarkably tedious before the story got interesting again.  As it turns out, that became something of a pattern in the book.   Long breaks of introspective self analysis were followed by a flurry of activity and progress by inches.

Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn is written in the first person by Lady Julia Grey, the widow of Sir Edward Grey, the man who was twitching on the floor and later died.  After the funeral, where Lady Julia spots Brisbane in the distance, Brisbane calls on her – a breach of etiquette – to inform her that Edward had asked him to investigate death threats and expresses his doubts of the naturalness of Edward’s demise, despite the family history of heart failure.  Julia, assuming this is a ploy to get her to her to hire him, is furious and berates him.  The angry and insulted Brisbane departs.  It took 63 pages to get from the twitching Edward to Brisbane’s call.  It takes nearly 40 more pages and an entire year for Julia to find one of the threatening notes stuck behind the drawer of her husband’s desk she is just now getting around to clearing out.  Realizing she was likely wrong in dismissing Brisbane and his tale, Julia calls on him (most ladies would have sent for him, not called at his lodging, especially during her year of mourning) to show him the note and seek his help only to be told after so much time, it is unlikely anything can discovered.  Determined now to see it through, Julia makes it clear she will pursue this one her own.  Eventually Brisbane relents and offers help.

At times the story moves on at a glacial pace.  There are many little nooks and crannies that Raybourn makes more significant than need be.  Brisbane’s excruciating migraines that drive him to near madness and picking out bits of his past – like he’d spent time in China and Tibet and in Europe.  Then Magda knows something about him she won’t reveal to Jane.  It is at the residence of the infamous Countess Hortense de Bellefleur, Fleur to her friends, where Brisbane has gone to recover from his latest attack of migraines, where she sees him again.  The Countess is a bit scandalous and going to her house will cause talk, but Julia goes anyway.   She and Fleur really hit it off and form a kind friendship.  We’re on page 250 of this 500+ page opus.  I found myself getting restless and longing for progress to be made more swiftly.

Ever so slowly bits and pieces emerge, but mostly to do with Brisbane and his background and the less than savory aspects of some of the household servants. Other than the discovery of a small box of arsenic in Magda’s room, nothing to do with the death of Edward is revealed.  We have now reached page 325 and the only other significant occurrence is learning that Brisbane is the great-nephew of the Duke of Aberdour, has an extraordinary gift as a violinist, and he and his great uncle shared a complex relationship of equal parts affection and antipathy.   And Lady Jane looks really good dressed in red.

The story picks up the pace a little when Brisbane asks Lady Jane to visit his rooms next day to hear his friend Mordecai’s report on the suspected arsenic powder.  It turns out it was arsenic, but that’s not what killed Sir Edward, the symptoms are all wrong.  Dr Griggs refused to give Mordecai any information because he ‘does not deal with Semites’.  Jane suggests they speak with the lady who prepared Edward’s body, Mrs. Birch.  Both men are impressed she thought of it.  The visit pays off and Julia learns that her husband’s ‘manly part’ was deep red.  The household inventory included a porcelain box – one Brisbane knows came from a famous brothel and contained condoms which are the likely delivery route for the poison.  But Julia gave the box to Magda to sell when she sent her away for fear Brisbane would find her guilty of killing Edward when Julia was sure she hadn’t.

Julia makes her brother Val go with her to the gypsy camp – with her dressed like young man.  There she sees Brisbane engaged in a prize fight – but more significantly, learns he’s fluent in Romany.  Only those of gypsy descent are taught the language.  By page 430 Brisbane is off to Paris and Julia is at loose ends.  She calls on the welcoming Fleur and learns more of Brisbane’s past, and that he has the sight – a trait that runs in his gypsy mother’s family.  The ‘migraine’ he had back around page 230 was actually a ‘dream’ about Julia.

Impatient, Jane pressures Val to go to the house of prostitution.  He refuses and the truth of what he’s doing comes out.  Val’s acting as a physician for the prostitutes.  He cannot openly practice medicine, so this covert activity is all he has.  Then he questions a prostitute who insists she’ll only speak with Jane.  After protesting such a meeting, Jane sees she must and Val arranges it in the park where he can watch over her.  The prostitute has some shocking information and it is here, on page 455, where things finally start falling into place.  Sir Edward has syphilis and spent time not with the woman, but with young men.

From here the story unravels quickly and with more emotion than was present in the rest of the book.  Jane is, justifiably, angry at Griggs for failing to tell her, at the young man on their staff she realizes was her husband’s lover, at the threat to her own health.  She overlooks one other person and it almost costs her her life.

The last 60 pages sped by, unlike the bulk of the story.  It’s here where Jane finally shows some deep emotion and story line gains some traction.  The murder’s identity is no shocker and he spills more information in a few pages than we picked over first 450.  Kirkus Review called the climax ‘far-fetched’ and that pretty much sums it up.  It is also very abrupt.  The book just suddenly stops.  From climax to The End in 12 pages.  After 500 pages of drawn out story I felt I was owed a better wrap-up.

Raybourn makes the March family’s propensity for eccentric and progressive behavior something of a point of pride for the Earl, and a lynchpin for Lady Julia’s actions.  I can see her refusing half mourning and other strictures, but at times it was a bit much to be believable.  The fact remains, society was rather unforgiving in certain areas and Julia was obviously well aware of it too as she keeps mentioning it each time she steps outside the boundaries.  Even she disapproved of Val wanting to be a surgeon, a career that would put him beyond the pale of society.  Yet she accepts without the slightest qualm her sister Portia’s open relationship with another woman and repeatedly exposes herself to censure by visiting Brisbane in his rooms and befriending a woman considered socially unacceptable.  And she allows Val to keep a Tower Raven won in a card game, protected by the Crown, in his room.  That discovery could huge issues with the Queen herself.

This is a really hard book for me to evaluate.  As a mystery, it’s fragmented and indifferent.  There’s no sense of urgency at all.   Neither is it a romance, though there is a strong attraction between Brisbane and Julia.  Silent in the Grave is primarily a character study of a young Victorian woman trying to reconcile society’s expectations with her own growing desire for freedom and independence and her growing awareness of wide range societal issues she had never really thought about before.  For the first time she wonders where all the food not consumed at the breakfast buffet goes, how poor widows make ends meet, the way gypsies and Jews are regarded by society and many other Victorian social conditions. The murder was merely the precipitating event for her personal growth.

I think the 15 questions at the back of the book, ostensibly for book clubs to ponder, are more telling about the author’s objectives than the book itself.  But I find I have different questions.  When Sir Edward’s will is read, Lady Jane inherits a huge estate with a wide range of holdings that need to be managed.  Her older brother, Lord Bellmont, and she have a tiff at the reading of the will when she declines his offer of help.  Nowhere in the next 490 pages, is any mention made of Julia doing anything to administer, oversee or even review the status of her now extensive investments, just household accounts.  What happened to the money?  Who is managing it?  How can such an estate be issue free for an entire year? Why make an issue of it and then ignore it?  Why isn’t Grey House and its contents insured?  Why does Lady Jane never mention old friends or have no one but family call on her?  Does she have not a single childhood friend?  After five years of marriage, has she acquired not a single confidant?  Later in the book, she calls on Fleur and they visit till dusk.  How does she get home?  A woman of the nobility wandering London alone after dark?  Why is Dr. Griggs they only one who says anything about her calling at the private rooms of Nicholas Brisbane, a man not of her class?  Why do no doyens of society visit and have a word?  Why hasn’t her brother, Bellcourt, paid her a visit to insist on propriety?  He and his family’s social standing and position as MP is certainly threatened by her behavior.  The only one who dares speak is a man she can easily set down because his status is so far below her own.  Where are family friends or people in her class?  Widows might have been marginalized, but not so much that they would be so ignored, certainly not one who is the daughter of an earl, sister to an MP and widow of a baron who is also very rich!  How did Lady Jane reach such an age without acquiring a wide social network?  I found that quite incredible.

The writing style is very readable, and the secondary characters are actually some of my favorites in the book – especially Julia’s butler Aquinas and the notorious Fleur, who ends up attracting Lord March’s eye.  Rayburn does an excellent job with Lady Julia and it really feels like she’s doing the narrating.  Brisbane has all the qualities you want in a male lead – except he’s missing much of the time.  The character of Sir Simon though is a real weakness in the story and impacts the credibility of the climax.  The atmosphere is good when it comes to the houses and staff, but London never really comes into life as it should.  Raybourn’s humor is droll, but like all other elements it’s more a gentle charm spiked with occasional flashes of tart wit than a sharp, knowledgeable observation on society.  I think the story would be far better if it was edited down to improve the pace.

I will read the next book, but I doubt this will be a favorite series for me, but we’ll see.

My Grade: C+ to B- (3.7*)

Who would enjoy this book:  Reader’s of Jane Austin historical fiction.  My rating is PG 13.


1 Comment »

  1. Nice blog about book reviews.

    Comment by roykeane — May 6, 2009 @ 12:09 am | Reply

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