07 Feb 2006
In the Regency era of Great Britain, there was one arbiter of fashion, and that was Beau Brummell, who lived high, wide and handsome for as long as possible before his debts caught up with him, his aristocratic friends abandoned him, and he died in poverty. But in 1805, he ruled Society, and he was capable of starting a fashion or exiling a social climber from the invitations of the ton.
Rosemary Stevens takes her experience writing four romances set in this period to craft a mystery that’s hews strictly to the ruts of the genre. Everything else about the novel delights: the details of Brummell’s life, the fastidious attention paid to his dress and the design around his life, his sudden inspirations and manuverings through the pitfalls of his position.
Historical novels like these offer a pleasant immersion into a society and its beliefs, and while one mustn’t go too far in praising this book — there’s still plenty of room on the shelf for a Regency novel with the breadth and penetration that, say, “The Alienist” performed on 1880s New York City — “Death on a Silver Tray” surpasses expectations.
Where it falls apart is in the mystery. In short, there is none so much as to be worth noticing, and the reader turns the pages and enjoys the sights and waits for Beau to stumble on the next obvious clue. There are even the usual folderal scenes that most debut mystery novelists have been warned to avoid. A Bow Street Runner (police that is) warns Beau not to Get Involved In The Case. Beau receives threats in the mail. There’s even a Siamese cat who could be an ancestor of Lillian Jackson Braun’s Koko and Yum-Yum. It may be unseemly to offer such objections to a book with such lightweight intentions, but the late Kate Ross’ books about Julian Kestrel show just how good a book set in this era can be.