RogerBW's Blog

A Moment of Silence, Anna Dean 21 April 2015

2008 historical detection, first in Dean's Dido Kent series. In 1805 at Richard Montague's engagement party, he suddenly puts off his fiancée Catherine and leaves for parts unknown. And a woman's body is found in the shrubbery. Catherine's spinster aunt Dido tries to clear up the mystery. US vt Bellfield Hall.

Unusual fare for me: I tend to feel that Georgette Heyer did the Regency rather well, and avoid other authors' takes on it. But this isn't the pastiche of Austen and Heyer that many books end up feeling like; there's a distinct voice here, with interesting things to say.

Having two mysteries seems almost like an embarrassment of riches, and Dido's curiosity drives her rather beyond the bounds of politeness in trying to solve both. Everyone has some sort of secret, but Dean doesn't fall into the Ellis Peters trap of nobody ever having more than one secret; here, a man could possibly be an adulterer and a murderer. There are two sisters, one appallingly bad at music, the other terrible at painting, being shopped around by their mother; there's a young rake deeply in debt, and his father doing his best to save him. Dido's own skills and experiences are important at first (recognising the station of the mysterious dead woman by the quality of her dress, and noting something about its construction which reveals a further clue), but later on the game becomes one mostly of social fencing and persuasion.

Yes, it's an English Country House mystery, with no significant involvement from the forces of law. But it's not the closed environment that that usually implies: Dido also ventures to a nearby village and to a seaside resort. The tight third-person narrative is broken up by Dido's letters to her sister, which allow the story to skip forward over events that would be tedious to recount in detail. The clues are there to lead one to the solution, but are well-hidden in a forest or irrelevancies.

What really startled me was that Dean failed to succumb to the largely American temptation to try to put the servants on equal footing with the masters. They're here, they have important clues to give, and one of Dido's abilities is that she's easily able to get on good terms with them, but there's none of the sense of premature equality that many recent books try for.

One slight flaw is that the Regency setting isn't thoroughly used; there's a reference to spying for the French, and the marriage market is on everyone's minds, but much of the goings-on could have happened just as well in the twentieth century, at some place without the telephone. That said, I think it's probably better to err in this direction than to throw in a load of Regency trappings and hope that some of them stick.

An imperfect book but a jolly good one. Recommended by Michael Cule. Followed by A Gentleman of Fortune.

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  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 02:38pm on 21 April 2015

    I like the way that she plays with the 21st century reader's assumptions. She establishes early on that Dido has blanks in her knowledge of worldly, especially sexual matters and then tempts modern readers (or at least me) to go in a chrono-superior manner 'Ah, yes I know what's going on here...' and then pull the floor out from under them with an explanation that would fit into a 19th Century novel. Counter-deconstructionism I suppose you would call it.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 02:42pm on 21 April 2015

    There was one thing which I thought was only explained by making twentieth-century assumptions, but yes, there's some distinctly cunning writing here.

  3. Posted by Michael Cule at 05:36pm on 21 April 2015

    If you mean what I think you mean, that's the point where Dido shows she knows the dirty old military officer is doing something bad... But also shows that she has no idea what exactly it is. She still manages to fix his wagon though.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 05:58pm on 21 April 2015

    Yup. It values being true to her character over laying out the solution to every mystery. Which I think is a legitimate choice.

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