All Lady Julia Grey ever wanted was a normal life. Born into the large March family, all of whom pride themselves on their eccentricities, Julia is something of an oddity: "I had never fought a duel or run away with my footman or ridden a horse naked into Whitehall…I did not even keep a pet monkey or wear turbans or dye my dogs pink. I lived quietly, conventionally, as I had always wanted, and I think I had been something of a disappointment to them." Part of Julia's conventionality is her marriage to her childhood friend and sweetheart, Edward, a gentle, quiet, somewhat frail man.
Heart problems run in Edward's family, so when Edward collapses and dies at a party, Julia is saddened but not entirely surprised or at all suspicious. That is, until private investigator Nicholas Brisbane contacts her. It turns out that Edward had received a number of threatening messages in the months leading up to his death, messages that lead Brisbane, and eventually Julia, to acknowledge that Edward's death in fact may have been murder.
Almost as soon as she is able to emerge from the required one-year mourning period, Julia throws herself headlong into the search for Edward's killer, frequently butting heads with the enigmatic, endlessly fascinating Brisbane. Along the way, Julia finds herself troublingly, unwillingly, attracted to Brisbane, a man who is in every way the opposite of her late husband: "Brisbane was not at all the sort of man I admired. He was too dark, too tall, too thickly muscled, altogether too much. I preferred a slender, epicene form, with delicately sketched muscles and golden hair. Graceful, aristocratic, like a Renaissance statue. Like Edward."
During her investigation, Julia uncovers secrets about Edward, about her own family, even about her servants and about Brisbane himself. Most importantly, though, Julia uncovers hidden elements of her own personality, a strength and intellect she didn't know she possessed, as well as --- just maybe --- her own flair for the unconventional and unexpected.
Deanna Raybourn's debut novel is a wickedly clever send-up of the Victorian mystery genre. SILENT IN THE GRAVE explores the darker regions of the Victorian landscape, from the parlors and boudoirs of Julia's aristocratic world to the exotic society of the Gypsies. Grave robbing, prostitution, gambling, absinthe --- even a pet raven --- all contribute to the novel's sensational appeal. Raybourn tempers these dark topics, though, by mixing in plenty of humor. Absurd situations abound (including a truly bizarre murder weapon), and quirky characters verge on caricature.
As she leaves her self-imposed cocoon and becomes a woman of the world, Julia's own first-person narrative style gradually develops from unintentionally amusing naïve impressions to more mature --- and at times wickedly funny --- commentaries on the persons and places that surround her.
Add to the mix one of the most memorable heroines in recent memory --- a woman who is both convincingly of her time and yet undeniably modern --- and a thrillingly twisted conclusion, and what you have is a winning equation for a top-notch historical mystery that will leave readers dying for the sequel.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 23, 2011