A Perilous Undertaking (Veronica Speedwell #2) by Deanna Raybourn

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Victorian adventuress and butterfly hunter Veronica Speedwell receives an impossible task—saving society art patron Miles Ramsforth from execution, who stands accused of the brutal murder of his mistress Artemisia. Together with her natural historian colleague Stoker, Veronica races against time to find the true murderer—a ruthless villain who not only took Artemisia’s life in cold blood but is happy to see Ramsforth hang for the crime.

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Publisher and Release Date: Berkley, January 2017
RHR Classifications: Historical Mystery/Adventure with a hint of romance to come
Time and Setting: London, 1888
Heat Level: 1
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Lady Wesley

Veronica Speedwell returns for her second adventure with Revelstoke Templeton-Vane, known to all (except his family) as Stoker. Veronica, who has made a career of sorts of lepidoptery, is the natural daughter of a Very Important Person, as revealed in the first book, A Curious Beginning. Stoker is a viscount’s younger son, who fled his unhappy home as a young man, became a doctor in the Royal Navy, and now has a significant reputation as a naturalist. (He also practices taxidermy, which makes for a couple of fairly gross scenes.)

Veronica and Stoker are true soul mates, minus the romance (mostly). In the first book, Veronica mused,

“I recognized his nature as my own. It was as if we were two castaways from a far-off land, adrift among strangers whose ways we could not entirely understand. But something within us spoke the same language, for all our clashes of words.”

Both are committed non-conformists who disdain the rules of Victorian society. They are witty, highly intelligent, fearless, strong, and loyal, and they have come to trust one another. In a neat role-reversal, however, Veronica is the more plain-spoken, logical one, while Stoker is reticent, more emotional, and more easily embarrassed. Although he agrees to pose nude for a sculptor/suspect, Veronica often shocks him with her forthright attitudes about sex. Their conversations, and frequent arguments, crackle with intelligence and plenty of humor.

Both of these books are mysteries, but the stories are really about Veronica and Stoker and the emerging personal and professional relationships between these brilliant, eccentric people. Don’t get me wrong – the mystery here is quite good and full of palace intrigue, decadent noblemen, bohemian artists, gothic secret societies, and politics.

The characters, however, drive the story. After an inauspicious beginning in the first book, Veronica and Stoker are now fast friends and colleagues. Their patron, Lord Rosemorran, has employed them to catalogue his vast collection of “art, artifacts, natural history specimens, [and] mementos.” They live in separate out-buildings on Rosemorran’s Marylebone estate and work in the Belvedere, “built as a sort of freestanding ballroom and storehouse for an eccentric Rosemorran ancestor.”

Even though they spend their days together, neither Veronica nor Stoker has opened up to the other about their past lives. Each has many secrets, and Raybourn gradually reveals bits and pieces to the reader. Nor have they acknowledged the underlying sexual attraction between them, although there are baby steps in that direction in this book. We yearn to know more, but she gives us enough to satisfy, at least until the next book.

When Veronica insists upon investigating the murder for which Miles Ramforth has been convicted, despite Stoker’s deep reservations, he goes along, mostly out of a sense of protectiveness. I won’t go into the twists and turns in the plot; there are so many and, besides, the book will be more enjoyable not knowing what happens next. I did not figure out the truth on my own, and I caution readers that some characters are hiding a lot more than you think.

Raybourn also populates her book with a roster of characters who are, well, characters. She excels at this, and I am always entertained by the unusual people who surround the main couple. Lord Rosemorran is eccentric, but not nearly as colorful as his elderly visiting aunt, Lady Wellingtonia Beauclerk. She is not exactly the dragon aunt often found in historical novels – she’s clearly fond of Veronica and flirts with Stoker – but she is fierce nonetheless. Scotland Yard’s Special Branch is ably led by the secretive Sir Hugo Montgomerie, who finds Veronica infuriating, while the “charmingly ambitious” Inspector Mornaday finds her alluring (and Stoker does not like it). The coterie of artists surrounding Sir Frederick Havelock, the greatest painter of the day, are appropriately unusual. Along with the murder victim, they all live at Havelock House, so Veronica and Stoker have lots of suspects to investigate.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book but could not give it five-stars for one simple reason: Veronica is incredibly irritating, even though it isn’t always her fault. I think that Raybourn has overdone it in her effort to show how much of a non-conformist she is. Everyone reacts to her, so we hear too often about her professional achievements, her subtle beauty, and her shocking behavior. This is not a major criticism, and indeed a reader who has not read A Curious Beginning might not notice it. I expect Raybourn was attempting to include sufficient detail for new readers; I simply found it more than sufficient.

That minor quibble aside, this is a delightful book. Deanna Raybourn is an excellent writer has become one of my auto-buy authors. Readers who enjoy mystery with a touch of romance definitely should give this series a try.

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