After a decade's service in the 16th Light Dragoons, during which he received a leg injury in the Peninsular War, Raif Jarrett travels to Woolbridge in the dales of County Durham in 1811 to take up a post as agent to his relative, the Duke of Penrith. His audit following the sudden death of His Grace's steward, Mr. Crotter, uncovers a trail of corruption that touches many residents of the densely populated mill town.
Two more deaths follow, and before he has a chance to blink, the normally unflappable Raif stands accused of killing a laundry maid, the gorgeous town flirt. While some locals are horrified to see a gentleman thrown into gaol, many more are pleased to see a nosy stranger get his comeuppance. Raif finds himself forced to depend on the few friends he's managed to make, including a poacher, a loyal innkeeper and his family, and Miss Henrietta Lonsdale, an attractive young woman who has carved her own place in society.
The novel abounds with historic and geographic detail, with scenes swiftly moving from the elegant confines of Oakdene Hall to tanning yards and grungy alehouses along the river. Though lacking somewhat in suspense early on - it may be cruel to say the story picks up after the young maid's demise, but 'tis so - the narrative more than makes up for it with its full-blooded Georgian atmosphere, well-drawn personalities, complex plotline, and linguistic virtuosity. In his first outing in a projected series, Raif proves to be a shrewd detective, a man wise enough to know whom to trust and when to keep his secrets to himself.
The Duke's Agent was published by Quercus in 2009 at £6.99 in paperback (previously published by Richard Cohen Books, 1997). I preordered it from Book Depository based on a recommendation on the CrimeThruTime e-mail list, and having read it, I'm passing the recommendation on in turn.