The magnificent preface, narrated by the lady herself, should make you snap to attention, for India isn’t a lady at all – quite the contrary. “My name is India Black. I am a whore,” she begins, without apology. As she states, her account is neither a memoir of a young girl’s loss of innocence nor a titillating exposé of her bedroom encounters. It’s not really a mystery either, despite the subtitle. As an espionage caper winding through the grimy back alleys and political centers of London, though, it’s a very entertaining one, and the protagonist’s brassy voice carries it off with style. Culminating with a heart-pounding chase scene (on a sleigh, even!) across the snowy countryside, Carol K. Carr’s debut India Black is a thrillingly escapist read.
The atrocities committed by Turks against Christians in distant Bulgaria serve as the catalyst for the action, but if you haven’t heard anything about them, don’t worry – India hasn’t either. During the winter of 1876, she’s content to stick to what she knows: managing Lotus House, an exclusive brothel catering to London’s gentlemen. When the client she’s nicknamed “Bowser” kicks it during a visit to one of her girls, India sees trouble ahead. With the help of an enterprising street urchin, she carts his overlarge body towards the docks, “trussed like a birthday present,” where he’ll be found and identified the next day – and so his wife will be notified of his death. India’s not completely heartless, after all.
Unluckily, Bowser’s real name was Sir Archibald Latham, late of Her Majesty’s War Office. After the debonair spy named Mr. French catches them disposing of the corpse, he blackmails India into helping him find Latham’s portfolio, which contains documents the British need to keep out of Russian hands. India isn’t about to take things lying down. To save her livelihood, and to prevent an international incident, she agrees to help the Prime Minister, aka Dizzy, get the papers back.
Her pursuit of the thieves takes her from a formal dance ball at the Russian Embassy to the inner chambers of the British government, and wherever she goes, French isn’t far behind. The pair’s adventures are over-the-top – she rescues him as often as he rescues her – and with a reluctant attraction simmering between them, neither dares show any gratitude. India’s profession sometimes gets her in a bind, so to speak. Her innuendo-filled intro to one scene made me wonder, with curious amusement, if the author really intended to go there. She does, and the result is hilarious.
Some thrillers pack on atmosphere like London’s streets pack on fog, and the ambiance has the required Dickensian feel when it needs to, but the highlight here is India’s sardonic sense of humor. A woman who displays her ample wit along with her décolletage, India has seen difficult times, and she’s a heroine you can’t help but root for. She can size up a man’s worth in seconds but lacks familiarity with the complicated tangle of international politics, not that that stops her. She also spouts an impressively vulgar vocabulary, though she's very well-read, and there are hints of other secrets lingering in her past. Her intriguing back story is one I’m sure will be worth uncovering in future volumes.
India Black is published this month by Berkley Prime Crime at $14.00 ($17.50 in Canada). Thanks to the publisher, I have one copy on hand to give away to blog readers. Leave a comment on this post for your chance to win; deadline Friday, January 21st. International entrants welcome.