Summer Of Secrets, by Cora Harrison
One of the things that this book provides the reader (and the characters), is truth, but it is not a pleasant truth, nor is it truth accompanied by justice or love or any other finer feeling. As such, this book feels rather unsatisfying. As a reader who comes to this book without a great deal of familiarity with the works of Charles Wilkie, the book is dissatisfying in other respects as well, as the author appears to indicate through the use of quotations from the works of Wilkie that this book relates to one of the novels of that 19th century author and friend of Charles Dickens. And this book is unsatisfying in other respects as well, not least the way that it deals with the subject of marriage, which is a heavy-handed and oppressive aspect of this book’s plot in spoilery fashion. So, with the proper spoiler alerts provided, let us note that Charles Dickens himself finds himself in a Lone Star-esque situation where his lawful son and illegitimate daughter find themselves planning to marry each other despite/because of the disapproval of Dickens himself. Nor is this the only way in which matrimony is looked down on in the book, as Wilkie enjoys mistresses and promises never to marry, Dickens frets about separation from his wife, the host of a literary house party deals with the unwanted presence of a wife that he had put in an asylum and who wants more money to support himself, and a young boy is taken on as a worker as an orphan whose father caught his mother in flagrante delicto, killing first her and her paramour and then himself. All in all, this novel presents a negative picture of marriage that is impossible for this reader to endorse.
This book is a short one at about 200 pages, and it has a pretty straightforward setup, where a writer who happens to be a lord and also a friend of Charles Dickens is hosting a group of mostly elite people to perform one of his plays in amateur theatricals. Readers of Mansfield Park will recognize that this will end badly, and so it does. But before its inevitable collapse a few things happen first. For example, the arrival of the host’s estranged wife, who refuses to leave until she is given a more suitable allowance that allows her to live in style, creates a lot of tension within the group. Then a young actress catches the eye of Charles Dickens’ son and also the attentions of the host’s loathsome secretary, who is involved in shady business. When the secretary is killed on-stage, there is then a search for the killer, and the police find themselves involved and largely incompetent in investigating, seeking to avoid the obvious target and thus pressuring the young actress since she is the lowest class person there (along with her widowed mother), which leads to a creative but unsatisfactory conclusion.
To say that a book is deeply disappointing is not to say that it is bad exactly. As a mystery it is certainly well-constructed. If Wilkie and Dickens appear less closely unified than they were in the past, there is still the same sort of ambivalence about looking to the law and seeking genuine justice that one finds in this series as a whole, largely because the wrongdoing occurs within the friends of the protagonists, which makes the reader suspect that the writer rather enjoys seeing the well-connected get away with the murder of people who are unpleasant, as this is a repeated issue in this particular series. While it is impossible to praise the morality of this book, which is thoroughly bad, it is possible to praise the skill of the author in crafting a compelling story of unpleasant people who are nonetheless thought of fondly by those who are fans of mid-Victorian literature. This novel is unfortunate to the degree that it makes me think less of the author and of her morally repugnant characters and their failures to live up to even decent, much less godly, standards of behavior.