— from A Gentleman of Fortune, p.75
Anna Dean's A Gentleman of Fortune came out in trade paperback in January, but I found it perfectly timed for a lazy weekend in late spring. I wanted something light and entertaining that could easily be sandwiched between two heavier review assignments, and based on my reading of book 1 in the series, Bellfield Hall, I guessed it would fit the bill. Set in 1806, it involves an overbearing woman's possible murder, dark secrets among the English gentry, some indiscreet spying on one's neighbors, and the wanton destruction of a library book.
The "gentleman of fortune" is Mr Henry Lansdale, who became the new owner of Knaresborough House in Richmond, Surrey, upon his elderly aunt's untimely passing. But if you believe Mrs Midgely, the spiteful gossip that she is, Mrs Lansdale's passing might have been somewhat... planned. Dido Kent's cousin Flora can't stand to hear anything negative about her neighbor, who is cheery, handsome, and a proper gentleman. Then the local apothecary reveals that Mrs Lansdale's evening drink on the night she died had contained four times her usual dose of extra-strength laudanum. Until the magistrate makes formal charges, the social proprieties must be observed, but tongues begin wagging.
Dido is a spinster of mature years — she's 35 — who's fresh off solving a crime at Bellfield Hall. This has given her confidence a great boost. She's not used to being on holiday, and her boredom and natural inquisitiveness make her wonder who administered the fatal dose. Her witty observations on rural society in the late Georgian era are honest and direct — and of the type that only someone firmly entrenched within that society could have. "Besides that half-pleasurable sorrow which is always felt at the death of a fine lady one hardly knows," she writes in a letter to her sister Eliza, "there is a great distrust of the nephew. For it has not passed without notice that he has lost a remarkably tyrannical relation and gained a very fine inheritance."
In any novel set in Jane Austen country, one comes to expect not only wise social commentary but pitch-perfect language and fine descriptions of all the accoutrements of day-to-day life. All of these are here in spades, plus there's more than that. Within this multifaceted puzzle, clues are cleverly laid amidst what appears to be mere window-dressing, so paying close attention is key. Dido is up to the challenge she sets for herself, to the regret of her suitor, Mr William Lomax, and she doesn't appreciate his calling her suspicions irrational. Their romance doesn't proceed as smoothly as she'd hoped... but she knew she was too old for love, anyway.
For me, this wasn't quite as tight a novel as Bellfield Hall, and it took a while for some of the secondary characters — Mrs Lansdale's and Mrs Midgely's relations and boarders, all of whom are Miss So-and-So — to make themselves clear in my mind. But I still enjoyed the read considerably, so much so that I started and finished on the same day.
A Gentleman of Fortune was published by Minotaur at $14.99 / $16.99 in Canada in January (trade pb, 335pp). Allison & Busby is the UK publisher (£7.99).