Move over, Jane Austen! Seattle English teacher Pamela Christie has wrenched the Regency-era novel out of the drawing rooms and country lanes that typify the genre and slipped it instead into an impeccably-appointed boudoir in "Death and the Courtesan."
Arabella Beaumont is the heroine in this first book of a saucy historical mystery series. A celebrated courtesan who commands the admiration of most of the men of England, and the generous (if discreet) attentions of some of the wealthiest and most influential among them, Arabella nonetheless prides herself on her self-reliance.
As it turns out, she has occasion to draw upon this quality when one morning, as she peruses the newspaper over breakfast in bed, she discovers that she is suspected of murder. The mutilated body of another courtesan, once a friend of Arabella's and later a rival, has been discovered in a tenement house. The murder implement was found lying nearby - it is a letter opener with the initials A.B. on the handle.
Although Arabella has a solid alibi for the night of the murder, the lover who had shared her bed declines to come forward because he is a member of nobility who does not want to jeopardize the advantageous engagement he has just made with a young lady of the landed gentry.
It is a season of political malaise, furthermore, and the powers-that-be think that the execution of a noted courtesan could be just the sort of spectacle that would distract a surly populace from their own problems.
Arabella quickly realizes that while she has friends in high places, in this case she is going to have to rely on her own wits to prove her innocence and save her neck.
She undertakes her investigation, seeking "clews." Her loyal but distractible younger sister Belinda offers moral support, if not much help. Her improbable friendship with rector John Kendrick guarantees modest aid, as well.
But when a dashing newspaperman steps forward to propose his assistance, she is grateful to accept his advances - of all kinds.
"Death and the Courtesan" romps through the streets, parks, offices, mansions, pleasure gardens, artist's studios, brothels and bedrooms of London. While there is certainly action of the spicy variety (usually reported on in a style more suggestive than blatant), there is also plenty of sparkling repartee and wicked wit.
The effervescent and free-thinking Arabella is a delightful heroine, and her sidekicks as well as the various scoundrels and scalawags who populate the story are likewise entertaining.
With this book, author Christie has conjured up a canny blend of 19th century literary convention, 21st century pacing, shrewd social commentary, scandalous behavior and scholarly attention to period detail for this series. If you don't mind a bit of ribald writing sprinkled throughout your historical mysteries, this is a fine choice for a beach read. The author projects that there will be ten books before Arabella Beaumont runs out of mysteries to solve, so you may as well begin at the beginning.
Barbara Lloyd McMichael writes a weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org