Winter Of Despair, by Cora Harrison
I have read four books by the author now and all of them have been fantastic historical mysteries. That is generally a good sample as far as the quality of work of the author is concerned, but what makes this book distinctive is that it is the third different series of mystery novels that I have read books from among the author’s work. Most of the time when one reads a historical mystery writer, they find a character and a time period and stick with it, but that’s not the case here. This novel doesn’t even follow the author’s usual pattern of writing about Munster, but is instead a mystery set in London which features as its heroes Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, along with the clever servant Sesina. The title itself is a very interesting one, in that it features a clever use of art history to examine the murder of an artist who appears to have made a living for a long while in blackmailing others. Of course, the case itself reveals some rather unpleasant aspects of the character of some of the people involved in it, which makes this like many of the author’s other works in featuring unpleasant aspects of power, including the power to harm someone’s reputation.
This is a book of a bit more than 200 pages and it deals with the celebrity life of the demi-monde in Victorian London. Apparently painting and writing novels is not enough to keep the two detectives of this story busy, and when an artist is found murdered and it is clear that he was seeking to enrich himself by threatening scandal upon his fellow artists within his community, they decide that even if the person’s behavior is unsettling and immoral that it is still worthwhile to solve his murder, especially because it appears likely that the painter’s brother is viewed by the police as a very likely suspect because of his identification in a painting about being caught in the act of adultery with the pretty and foolish wife of an older and wealthy man. Throughout the course of the novel the heroes seek to exculpate the young man who is the prime suspect and to keep him from killing himself in despair over his shame and embarrassment, even as it appears likely that there are a variety of other people who could have done it, and a rather shocking end to the book when the crime simply ceases to be prosecuted at all.
There are a great many ways where matters of reputation end up being in trouble. One of the main suspects in the case happens to be Wilkie’s younger brother (who, in history, ended up marrying Charles Dicken’s sister, and he was not happy about it, apparently), who has been involved in an adulterous affair. How reputation is to be protected ends up being a major problem in the small incestuous world of the Pre-Raphaelite painters of London. And nearly everyone has a secret, from a fondness for theft, to a love of gambling in seedy bars in a way that threatens one’s marriage and honor, all making people vulnerable to blackmail efforts. And even when the mystery is solved, the book manages to leave a bitter taste in one’s mouth as justice is obviously not done. If it is not an unhappy ending, it is certainly an unsettling one, as it is not even the amateur detectives themselves who manage to solve the crime, but a servant who knows them and gets along with them who harbors dreams of being involved in the acting world who ends up nearly being sacrificed to the law by the killer in order to provide a suitable scapegoat, which makes this book tread closer to darkness than one tends to prefer in a historical mystery, if it were not so well-written for all of its moral complexities.