RogerBW's Blog

The Anatomist's Wife, Anna Lee Huber 01 December 2023

2012 historical mystery; first in Huber's Lady Darby series (post-Regency amateur detection). Lady Darby has retired from society to her brother-in-law's Scottish castle after the death of her husband tainted her with his scandal, but her sister is throwing a party, and not everyone will leave it alive…

Well, this is Scotland as written by an American, and as usual there are many things that just ring slightly wrong – starting with our heroine's given name, Kiera, and her sister Alana. (Even in the USA, these were essentially unheard-of until about 1969 and 1943 respectively.) There's a "precipitous" engagement – that doesn't involve a cliff. The smell of a corpse is disguised with a dead raccoon (an animal notably not found in Scotland; perhaps Huber was thinking of free-range haggis). It's an style that irks me because it implies a complete lack of care (by author and, if any, editor) about the quality of the work – and because fixing it wouldn't require any significant changes to the plot.

It irks me more in this case because the plot and characters have interesting elements. Lady Darby's late husband was writing an anatomical textbook, prefiguring Gray by a few decades; he was unable to draw, so he forced his wife to do the illustrations, and since she actually did the looking at corpses she's now generally regarded as a deeply unnatural woman, and a suspect for anything dodgy that comes along.

Meanwhile we meet Sebastian Gage, libertine and son of "London's gentleman inquiry agent", who might as well have a sign hung on him saying "destined romantic hero", and takes charge of the investigation while the house party is waiting for the authorities to arrive (and sufficient authorities to deal with a matter of aristocratic murder are a long way away).

It's all very by-the-numbers at times (and everyone's far too willing to talk about their marital infidelities), but the brutally honest appreciation of how little a woman of this era can do, if opposed by husbands or parents, lifts this out of the cosy historical fantasyland and move it towards something more like Anne Perry's William Monk series. (At least the early ones that I quite enjoyed.) I'll at least try another.

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Series: Lady Darby Mysteries | Next in series: Mortal Arts

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