Tuesday, February 28, 2012

India Black (Carol K Carr)

Told through the no-nonsense and irreverent (almost anachronistic, though I'm no history expert) tone of its protagonist, India Black spins a tale of espionage and mystery set in Victorian England. The eponymous Miss Black runs Lotus House, a brothel that caters to gentlemen, mostly minor aristocracy, military officers, and high-ranking civil servants. Little does she know that the death of one of their regulars will embroil her in politics, state secrets, and matters of national security.

The key to enjoying this book is enjoying India's perspective. If you don't find yourself taking to her tone, then I'm afraid there will be little else to like about this one. It does not offer much in the puzzle solving area; the book is too straightforward to be classified as a true mystery. A good part of it merely follows India and fellow agent French as they trail behind the antagonists. Still, I enjoyed India and her interactions with French (no romantic overtones here yet, as a caveat to readers looking for some) that I bought the second book right away.

As a fan of historical mysteries, I've always read about how members of the ton would solve a few cases here and there, or capture the occasional spy. As a brothel madame and a former prostitute herself, India won't be seen in grand ballrooms or taking leisurely strolls with a chaperone. It was this markedly different perspective that encouraged me to give India Black a closer look. I found her an engaging figure. Her friends, especially Vincent, were equally interesting. There are plenty of moments here where I laughed out loud both because of India's wry observations or their occasionally comic, even bumbling, attempts to capture their quarry.

Where India Black was a spy thriller, India Black and the Widow of Windsor tries harder to introduce more mystery elements. Whether these attempts are successful is a matter of subjective opinion, but for the most part I was satisfied. That, and I was becoming more and more intrigued by India and French's back stories, which were both conspicuously absent in the first book.

Queen Victoria heads to Scotland for the holidays, but word has reached the Prime Minister's office that in Balmoral nests a plot to take her life. Prime Minister Disraeli dispatches India and French to go undercover and suss out the would-be assassins: French upstairs with the rest of the titled guests and India below stairs among the staff and help. Ms Carr steps up her game with Widow of Windsor. The seeds of romance have been sown. The mystery element, though not hard to figure out, is a welcome addition. Also included are brief hints into India's past as well as French's current situation. As a reader, I was appreciative of these gestures to enrich the series both plot-wise and character-wise.

I'm really looking forward to the rest of Ms Carr's books. Fans of Lauren Willig's Pink Carnation series or Deanna Raybourn's Lady Julia Grey series might enjoy picking up some India Black for an unapologetic protagonist and some memorable escapades.

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