Dark Road To Darjeeling is the fourth novel in the Lady Grey mysteries series (or perhaps it is the first sequel to the original ‘Silent’ trilogy, you could probably argue that either way,) and it picks up roughly a year after the events of book three, Silent On The Moor.
It’s worth noting that the original trilogy are really excellent books, despite their incredibly unfortunate romance novel style headless-woman-in-a-bodice cover art. I feel somewhat fortunate that I became aware of them first in their UK impression, which had much more interesting, slightly steampunky graphics. It was actually this that compelled me to pick them up in the first place, otherwise I have a feeling I would have dismissed them as yet more generic historical romance and carried on browsing. Which would have been a shame because they really are incredibly good.
Despite the rather disperate style of covers these are not steampunk novels, nor are they bodice-rippers. They are pretty much straight-up mystery with a kick of romance underneath, though they are admittedly grounded in that same slightly nebulous mid-Victorian London so popular with steampunkers.
The social customs and the majority of the dialogue however are more traditionally handled and, as a Brit myself, it is enormously gratifying to see an American author with a fluent and capable handle on the inflections and peculiarities of the speech patterns. Because there is, genuinely, nothing more likely to snap me out of an otherwise great read than to have historical British nobility stumbling over sidewalks or espousing overtly 21st century viewpoints. There is blessedly little of that here and, though there are a few eyebrow-raising moments, the central character of Lady Julia manages to balance both a necessary level of modernity in her attitude and a still historically appropriate awareness of social expectations.
Dark Road To Darjeeling, as you can probably infer from the title, sees our heroes out of England for the first time, plunging deep into the fringes of the Empire to investigate a possible murder at a tea plantation. Lady Julia and investigator Nicholas Brisbane are joined this time by Julia’s sister Portia and her brother Plum, called together at the behest of their recently widowed friend to investigate the death of her husband. It contains all the things you’d expect from such a set-up, including questions of inheritance and social stigma, all bottled up in a tiny pressure-cooker of a valley at the foothills of the Himalayas.
The mystery itself is suitably twisty and, even if it unfolds perhaps a little slowly at points, there are more than enough dead-ends and red-herrings to keep you flicking back and forth between the fairly odd array of new characters to try and slot the pieces together. It has the provincial village gossip feel of a Miss Marple novel at points though, and there’s a great deal of repeated wandering between the rather limited array of locations that does occasionally make you wish everyone would just hurry up and get on with it.
That said, it’s not too badly paced once you get going and despite the deceptive thickness of the book it’s not an enormously long read. There are a few points where you can fairly safely guess what’s coming, but there’s one revelation in particular that genuinely did leave me startled. It’s a neatly shocking development that harks back to Silent On The Moor, so if you haven’t yet read the first three novels I urge you to do so before embarking on this. Characters first met in book two reappear here as well, and Julia’s rather unorthodox family ties probably need a little more background explanation than you’re going to get from just this particular instalment.
As a mystery it’s a solid addition to the set, certainly better thought out than the plot of Silent In The Sanctuary, and the conclusion is one I did not see coming until relatively close to the end. If you enjoyed the first three you’ll be relieved to know that Dark Road To Darjeeling is far better than The Dead Travel Fast, the mystifyingly awful vampire romance-mystery Raybourn put out in between Lady Grey novels. But given as it’s the fourth in a series it’s not exactly a good jumping off point for new readers.
As a continuation I enjoyed it well enough but that’s not to say I don’t have a couple of issues. In terms of character development it’s probably not the best of the lot. There is a specific reason for that and it’s because of a fairly massive (though really inevitable) spoiler for Silent On The Moor, so you’ll have to click if you want to know about that. Otherwise it’s a competent continuation and fans of Lady Grey will probably welcome the chance to catch up with old favourites even if there are a few quibbles to be had.View Spoiler »The thing about Dark Road To Darjeeling is that while the mystery itself is of comparable quality to its predecessors, it is lacking in the one thing that really made the Silent trilogy so incredibly compelling in the first place. It wasn’t the mysteries themselves that made them so good, it was the burning hot, page-melting, achingly desperate sexual tension between Julia and Brisbane.
The conclusion of Silent On The Moor saw them finally married after some 1700 pages of fearsome pining, and it was a wonderful conclusion to that part of their relationship. (Yes, I cried.) The only problem is that now they’re actually together, that particular motivation is no longer in effect and their interactions in this novel feel a little bloodless by comparison. They may not be quite the blissfully happy lovebirds, but their points of contention are more inclined to make me want to give them both a smack upside the head for being unreasonably stubborn than to feel particularly strongly about either side of the argument.
They spark best when they are at loggerheads, which they have always done, but it’s unfortunate that Brisbane is strangely absent for a great deal of the book. There is a reason for that at least, and it involves a slightly weird sub-plot about a tiger, but the simmering and impassioned dynamic that really pushes the first three novels doesn’t seem to have a replacement here.
As I said, the mystery is sound and if that’s what you’re looking for then it’s a solid continuation. On the other hand if you’re hoping for the deliciously emotional hit expected from previous instalments you may be left disappointed. « Hide Spoiler