This is the fifth installment in Andrea Penrose’s Wrexford and Sloane series, set in London in the early 1800’s. In each novel, Penrose folds in some sort of scientific discovery, and in this one, the discovery involves a cure for malaria, a huge problem at the time. Set in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Penrose also includes some real-life scientists (read her interesting author’s note), while at the same time creating an exciting adventure and a bit of romance.
When the series opened, Lady Charlotte Sloane was a widow who had slipped into her late husband’s career as a satiric artist. She works anonymously, often causing a stir when her work is published in the paper. She assists her now fiancée, Lord Wrexford in investigations. As the book opens, he is introducing her to society at a huge gathering at the Botanical Garden as his future bride. Unfortunately, a dead body is discovered during the course of the evening, and Wrexford, a now well known amateur sleuth, is called in for advice.
Setting a book during this period really gives an author some freedom, as the police force at the time were just the Bow Street Runners, so Wrexford’s expertise and connections would have been much appreciated. Everyone tells him they know he has a wedding coming up, and they understand if his help is only advice, but of course Wexford as well as Charlotte gets drawn into the investigation.
Living with Charlotte are two young boys she has rescued from the streets, each showing some sort of talent (one is an artist). They still have their street connections and can blend in, which makes them useful in the investigative process.
This story is a complicated mix of science, transport – shipping between the United States and Europe – and the social layers that both lubricate as well as inhibit the couple’s investigation. Added to this mix is Charlotte’s reunion with her brother. She has been somewhat estranged from her family and this is the first reconnection. The emotional aspect of this reunion adds some real punch to the novel.
As Wrexford, Charlotte, the two boys and an assortment of allies and friends get to work to solve the murder of the dead scientist at the Botanical Garden, they are also impeded by more dead bodies a bit later in the proceedings. This was a nice mix of science, setting, adventure story, and romance. Wrexford and Charlotte are a great pair.