Murder at the Merton Library (A Wrexford & Sloane Mystery)
“As in every Penrose novel, the solution to these linked crimes is generated through the loyalty and insight of intelligent and caring friends.”
Andrea Penrose’s lively Regency mystery series featuring the Earl of Wrexford and his wife Charlotte, who is secretly the satirical cartoonist A. J. Quill, reaches its seventh installment in Murder at the Merton Library. Why would anyone murder an aging head librarian at Oxford? Clearly they have no idea that Wrexford might take this killing personally—the Earl’s acute attention will immediately focus on the crime and criminals, unfolding a complex scheme intended to increase the wealth of unscrupulous financial speculators.
Penrose hits her narrative stride, now that the Earl and Charlotte are securely married and the distractions of romance subside into family warmth. Especially charming and entertaining in this series are the couple’s “adopted” street-urchin sons, Hawk and Raven, who train new friends, Peregrine and Osprey, in the rules of being Lord Wrexford’s well-educated, well-behaved, but also excitedly investigating younger team. Like Charlotte, they readily slip into disguise to keep watch, seek clues, and even (although they are not supposed to rush into danger) confront criminals.
For Charlotte, investigating in disguise is one more side of her life, along with running a noble household and goading the establishment through her drawings. Of course, this takes her also into danger, something she balances a bit differently, now that she has such a family: “So delicate. And so deadly . . . Charlotte, Countess of Wrexford—though hardly a soul on earth would recognize her dressed as she was in rags rather than fancy silks—winced as a bank of windows exploded in a blinding flash of light. The blast forced her back into the shadows of an alleyway bordering Cockpit Yard, a cluster of brick buildings just south of the Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury.”
And there you see the striking difference in Penrose’s Regency novels: Rather than regally distributing casual coins to poor folks, Charlotte and Wrexford get down into the rough places and enlist tough (but loyal) people to help them solve cases and seek justice. Hence, of course, their wards, who are allowed to explore and utilize such double lives themselves, within strict parameters.
The book also probes the back-and-forth of inventions in this century of industrial revolution and fortunes to be made: The couple’s friend Christopher “Kit” Sheffield is clearly entangled in the high-stakes inventions and investments, and even this likely arson that Charlotte’s watching suggests Kit can’t handle the kind of alliances required. “Hell’s bells. Sheffield was family—perhaps not in a traditional sense, but in every way that mattered. Be damned with the dangers—she couldn’t just walk away.”
Of course, not every couple in this circle of wealth and power has worked out their team effort the way Charlotte and her beloved have done, and Kit Sheffield’s own long-term romance is at stake, as well as his fortune and even his life. If he’ll open up to Wrexford, there’s a chance to save all of those, though, thanks to Wrexford’s ability to assess a situation: “He could smell it. Malevolence tainted the air, its sour, sulfurous odor swirling up from the bowels of Hell. Some clue to its source was here, and by God, he was going to find it,” are the thoughts of the sleuthing (and, at that moment, slinking) nobleman.
When a crumpled page of Charlotte’s own published drawings turns out to offer a breakthrough in the investigation, the links of Leonardo da Vinci, “Progress,” and even military investments become clear. As in every Penrose novel, the solution to these linked crimes is generated through the loyalty and insight of intelligent and caring friends—which is why her fiction is, as Lord Wrexford’s friends would say, “infernally satisfying.”