Tasha Alexander’s A Fatal Waltz and Tears of Pearl

cover art, a fatal waltzA while back I reviewed an earlier book in this series, A Poisoned Season. I liked it enough that I knew I would be willing to read future installments. Then I lost track, which is easy enough to do, given the number of books we receive at Green Man, and the number we try to follow. These two came in several months ago, one from our favorite local independent bookstore, the other as an advance readers’ edition from the publisher. They sat in my fiction pile until I was in the mood for something lighter than the noir fare I’ve been favoring of late.

Yes, they are lighter than noir; in fact, to stay with the French, I would characterize them as pêche (kind of a peachy pink, you know?). That’s not to say they aren’t suspenseful, just that the murders are only part of the story. Throughout the series, Alexander also threads a plotline about the romance between the heroine and first-person narrator, Lady Emily Ashton, and her dashing collaborator Colin Hargreaves, along with various bits and pieces about her relationships with other friends and family members. These two novels in particular also take place in rather exotic locations, so setting becomes an issue. And, at least in these two, Alexander does a decent job of incorporating some historical context. So there’s quite a lot going on, which is good.

As a quick recap (which Alexander kindly provides in the first few pages of each book), Lady Emily is a young widow from an aristocratic family. Attractive, intelligent and strong-willed, she has a scholarly interest in classical Greek artifacts and literature and a fondness for high fashion clothes. Although dates are not a matter of great concern in these novels, the action takes place in the late nineteenth century, in those years just before the Great War forever changed the nature of the social and political order in England and the rest of Europe.

In the first two novels in the series, And Only to Deceive and A Poisoned Season, Lady Emily begins to practice a set of skills that establish her as a person who can solve crimes. She collaborates and eventually falls in love with her late husband’s best friend, who engages in sensitive international work on behalf of the British Crown — some might call it espionage.

A Fatal Waltz opens at one of those dreadful hunting parties members of the British upper class used to hold at their country estates. The host of this particular weekend is Lord Fortescue, a close advisor to Queen Victoria and a thoroughly obnoxious human being. Colin is at this event on official business; Lady Emily attends out of friendship for Ivy Brandon, whose husband Robert has political ambitions. She soon has reason to regret her decision.

Lord Fortescue is murdered, and Robert Brandon, suspected of doing the deed, is unceremoniously hauled off to Newgate Prison. Lady Emily offers to help Ivy by investigating the crime in an effort to prove Robert innocent. In order to do so, she travels to Vienna, a city I have encountered in other murder mystery series, including the Karl Werthen novels by J. Sydney Jones. It’s just one of those places! Alexander does a fine job of depicting the ambiance of fin de siècle Vienna, down to and including the bustling streets, the elegant hotels and cafes, the talented artists and writers and musicians, the decadent parties and food, the cold and miserable winter weather, and the political and sexual intrigues.

About the only really irritating aspect of A Fatal Waltz for me was the subplot concerning Lady Emily’s jealousy over Colin’s relationship with a sophisticated Austrian operative, the Countess von Lange. Problem is, the Countess and Colin are former lovers, the Countess is still in love with Colin, and they are in frequent communication with each other due to Colin’s own work on the Continent. And Lady Emily is a lot less confident of Colin’s feelings for her than she should be. This whole plotline comes across as a bit too much of a romance element for my rather noir-ish tastes.

cover art, tears of pearlTears of Pearl picks up where A Fatal Waltz leaves off. Lady Emily and Colin have finally tied the knot in a private ceremony in Greece. After spending a hellish month with Lady Emily’s parents in Kent (mother is controlling and manipulative and very hung up about social niceties), the pair board the Orient Express bound for a romantic honeymoon in Constantinople. Yes, this city on the cusp between Europe and Asia is another favorite venue for murder mysteries, and I’ve been there before with Investigator Yashim and Kamil Pasha.

On the train, Colin and Lady Emily make the acquaintance of a mid-level employee at the British Embassy in Constantinople, Sir Richard St. Clare. Shortly after their arrival, they meet Sir Richard’s colleague and friend, Theodore Sutcliffe. Both of these men are career diplomats who have worked at a number of outposts of the Empire. Both have suffered the tragic loss of close family members. Both become regular players in the lives of Colin and Lady Emily as their honeymoon turns into yet another murder investigation.

The evening after their arrival, our protagonists find themselves on the scene of a murder. A member of the Sultan’s retinue, a young concubine, is strangled right after the finale of an opera they are attending at Yildiz Palace. It soon becomes apparent that the young woman was in fact a British citizen, Sir Richard’s long-lost daughter Ceyden. Lady Emily is called upon to interview several women in the harem, including the rival valide sultans Bezime and Perestu. She also has a number of encounters with the Sultan, Abdul Hamit II, in the course of her work on the case.

Two more members of the Sultan’s court lose their lives before Colin and Lady Emily figure out the who and why of the murders. Although I had my suspicions, I wasn’t entirely sure about the perpetrator any sooner than the characters were. I consider that a mark of a good mystery novel, don’t you?

Letters from home regarding the difficulties Ivy is experiencing with her first pregnancy cause Lady Emily to experience great fears about her own ability to bear children. These fears seem not to affect her ability to enjoy frequent and imaginative lovemaking with her new husband. Just remember that a late Victorian aristocratic woman is the narrator of the series. Don’t expect anything too graphic; Lady Emily is very discreet!

Alexander does a reasonably good job of portraying the distinctive topography, buildings, marketplaces, food, and general ambiance of Constantinople at this point in time, although I would say not as good a job as she did with Vienna in A Fatal Waltz, and certainly not as good as Jason Goodwin and Jenny White have done in their respective series. The novel’s climax, a chase through one of the city’s many abandoned cisterns (huge underground water reservoirs), is exciting but vaguely familiar (I’m sure that Investigator Yashim had a similar experience in The Janissary Tree). It also seemed to me that such an effort might present a considerable challenge to a high-born lady wearing long, full skirts!

Despite my minor quibbles, for light historical mysteries, the Lady Emily series has much to commend it. If you enjoy this subgenre, I suggest you check these titles out.

(Harper, 2008)
(Minotaur, 2009)

Donna Bird

I am a former lecturer of Sociology at the University of Southern Maine in the beautiful Portland area, where I have lived since 1992.

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