The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne by Elsa Hart is an interesting take on the historical mystery. Sporting a pair of women investigators and an esoteric collection of both objects and suspects, The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne contains intrigue and danger among the backdrop of 18th century London. Like many good historical mysteries, the story relishes its setting witbout becoming overly didactic, drawing the reader further into the mystery.
The focus upon a peculiar subset of pseudoacedemics in the previous century, those whom collect esoteric objects for the purpose of personal study and enjoyment. Called “collectors” throughout the volume, they all are unified in admitting that one man has the best, widest, and most voluminous collection among them. That man is none other than the titular Barnaby Mayne. His collection is broad and impressive, taking up virtually every part of his house, which is densely packed with all manner of esoterica from the beautiful to the disgusting. Barnaby Mayne’s collection extended so far as to absorb, fully formed, the collections of other men.
This peculiar environment allows the reader to accept the setting while providing the kind of period details that a history buff will greatly appreciate. There is little sympathy for the murdered Barnaby, though this only increases the possibilities as to who is a likely candidate for being the murderer. Further the man does have a few redeeming moments, such as allowing Cecily to use his collection to aid in cataloguing the herbs and plants she has found and how they might be of use.
It is on an opportune tour of Mayne’s collection that Cecily Kay, a woman of some accomplishment who has been sent away by her husband after she did some accounting and proved someone was taking advantage of his relative lack of skill. She has a strong mind, and originally comes to the tour out of a desire for specific information related to botanical samples she brought back to England. Upon the death of Barnaby Mayne, and in spite of being an obvious suspect, Cecily begins a detailed investigation of the murder. She proves resourceful and stubborn, very difficult to deter from whichever pursuit she undertakes, particularly when literally threatened.
The other lead is Meacan. Meacan is a woman with a great many mysteries early on in the volume, including her refusal to answer questions as to why she wants Cecily to avoid investigating further. While this might paint her as a potential suspect early on, it does not prevent Meacan from becoming the second investigator of the story and to prove fiercely protective of Cecily.
The question of who murdered Sir Barnaby Mayne, and why he was killed, is the core of the mystery the women find themselves embroiled in. The entire collecting community might be seen as suspects, as there are motivations galore. Some are spiteful over losing objects to him, others seem increasingly greedy for elements of it. There are of course those who show sympathy, though as with many murder mysteries the chances seemed high that these people have hidden motivations as well.
The occult is brought to the fore when certain elements of Sir Barnaby’s collection are examined, and items related to occult studies are discovered. While this is a boon to Cecily and Meacan’s investigation of his death, it also reflects the nature of society. Chances seem high that Barnaby knew his research could be deemed illegal at any time, and as a result kept deliberately quiet about his actual interest in the subject and instead claimed it merely as an addition to the collection. Indeed the fact he was so circumspect about the nature of his studies into the occult leads to Cecily performing a large amount of questioning upon this small element of the collection in an effort to determine how any such interest might relate to the murder.
Economics of course plays a role. While Barnaby Mayne left a will, the details of it call for a large payment to his widow in exchange for the complete collection, a transaction which brings two different parties to the forefront. Each has a separate reason for wanting the man dead, yet amusingly also personal setbacks which could effortlessly cancel out such motivations.
The position of women is felt in this particular volume, with a number of minor plot details pushed forward by them. The widow Mayne tries to warn Cecily away from examining the murder, and does so in no small part by claiming that it is not the place of a woman to look into such things, simultaneously reminding the reader of the misogyny of the times and how the widow had benefitted from her husband’s death.
This volume comes to a satisfying end, although the possibility of a sequel is certainly brought up. Specifically one of the women leading in the book receives a letter suggesting another mystery in a very familiar location. The problem that arises in many such endings is that it makes the entire story feel as though it is feeding into a long series, and the book in hand is not sufficiently complete. This is certainly not the case for The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne. The core mystery, and indeed most of the surrounding mysteries, have been thoroughly examined and dealt with. The question of who killer Barnaby Mayne is answered, and the reasons others could be suspected of it are each looked at. The personal struggles of the lead women are addressed, and while they might not be solved in a fairy tale fashion they are still more than satisfactorily completed. The fact that more stories might happen involving the leads is merely a possibility for their futures.
The overall effect of the setting is carefully calculated yet entirely believable. The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne provides an interesting mystery and characters, and even curious objects. Moments come when characters seem utterly irredeemable, yet the difference in time and their parts in the story easily account for these. Overall, an easy book to recommend to fans of Elsa Gary’s work, and fans of the historical mystery novel in general.