The novel takes us to Jane Austen country, in both locale and style, though darker undercurrents lurk beneath the tightly drawn social fabric. Miss Dido Kent, an acknowledged spinster of thirty-some years, has been called to the side of her niece, Catherine, following the disappearance of Catherine's fiancé. Women dependent on their families for support must travel where they're most useful, and Dido and Catherine have always been close, so she's eager to do what she can to comfort her.
Richard Montague, heir to the vast country estate of Belsfield Hall, vanished on the night of their engagement party after another man approached him while on the dance floor. Not a word was spoken, yet the message was enough for Richard to leave Catherine a note releasing her from their engagement. He said he wished to spare her the shame that would soon befall his family. What could he have learned during that moment of silence to traumatize him so greatly?
As if that's not enough, an unknown woman has been found shot to death in the Belsfield Hall shrubbery. In the first of what will be many letters to her sister Eliza, Dido takes pains to mention that it was the under-gardener who found the body. It wouldn't do to have a member of the family or a guest blamed for such a thing.
As a woman living in 1805 England, Dido lacks a proper education. She was trained in the social graces, not book learning, but she feels sufficiently worldly-wise to take up her niece's cause. Catherine, of a stubbornly romantic bent, wants to marry Richard Montague anyway, but if his absence relates to the mysterious woman's murder, that poses a problem. With Catherine's prospective in-laws anxious to avoid blemishes on their distinguished name, Dido determines to solve both mysteries for the sake of Catherine's future happiness.
Given the victim's sex, the murder is one only a woman can solve, and I mean no disrespect by that! Women and men in the late Georgian era navigate separate but connected worlds. It was delightful to read a mystery so entrenched in the customs of its time and place that it really could not have taken place anywhere else. In her investigations, Dido must join her knowledge of female mores and goals with what she learns by talking to everyone at Belsfield, from Lord and Lady Montague to their unmarried nieces to Lord Montague's man of business and his son. And, of course, the servants. All of them are hiding something.
In a society as rigid as this, where a woman's station can be assumed by the dress material she's purchased, it should come as no surprise that little details matter. Sometimes they matter very much. Finding out whodunit takes close observance, and it was excellent intellectual entertainment to see how cleverly the author inserted clues throughout the book. Furthermore, Dido is fun company. She amusingly discomfits the Montagues with her pointed remarks yet is nonetheless a product of her time, and her letters to Eliza (and Eliza's one reply back) provide additional insight into how her mind works. Her utter cluelessness on one aspect of the local goings-on just adds to her charm.
I highly recommend this complex, multi-layered mystery, and its appeal isn't limited to Regency fans. Its light and witty subtleties won me over quickly, and the gradual revelations about the murderer and motive kept me reading. A Moment of Silence was a novel I bought last year from the UK, though it's newly available under the US title Bellfield Hall. (That's Bellfield, not Belsfield. Another subtlety, no doubt; perhaps "Bellfield" was judged more appealing to Americans like myself.) Either way, it's a superb read.
A Moment of Silence is available at £7.99 from Allison & Busby (UK) in paperback, or £19.99 in hardcover; also, as Bellfield Hall, from St. Martin's Press at $23.99. The UK has the better title; the US has the better cover. You decide.