While browsing NetGalley for something to read (because I clearly don’t have enough on my TBR as is…), Lady Helena Investigates caught my eye. As I mentioned in my review of Point of Honour, I’m not big on crime, but historical mysteries tend to get a pass because I enjoy the sociology aspect of them. So I requested this Victorian mystery, and it was lovely!
Book: Lady Helena Investigates by Jane Steen
Read before: No
Ownership: e-Arc provided by NetGalley for fair review
I really liked this book. It’s not perfect, but it was a lovely read on an afternoon that was simply too hot to focus on. If I was complaining, I would say that it was a little overly long, with factual information about the family being repeated a little too often, but in my muggy, woolly state-of-mind I actually really appreciated that. I loved the calm way that things unfolded slowly, and the tone and pace worked perfectly for the Victorian setting.
You may need to give it a chapter or so to open up, as the opening scene is somewhat dense and confusing. Lady Helena, our protagonist, has a very large family, with six siblings and an array of nieces and nephews and brothers-in-law, not to mention her own husband (recently deceased) and various other members of her household and village. It feels like they are all introduced at once, and the first few pages are a cacophony of voices as the author tries to show us each of the different siblings. Do not worry. The book gets a lot more sensibly-paced after this scene, and the horde of relatives step back and let Helena interact with them individually and like normal people. It’s actually a very interesting family.
There is murder, and a mystery to be solved, of course, but ultimately that plot line was far less compelling than finding out about Helena’s life and her family. Her elderly mother has dementia, and the different ways Helena’s siblings react to that is fascinatingly well-painted. The siblings themselves were born over a 25 year span, with some of her elder sisters married with children before she was even born. Helena herself is intriguing – a young widow, she has been forced to act much older than her age (early twenties) to make her way in the world, and the book is a journey towards her discovering that her family have had lives before and outside her, and she has never noticed.
My favourite thread throughout the book is Helena’s rediscovery of her talent with medicinal herbs, a skill that she learned from her mother but had given up on after a trauma. She learns to embrace her healing skills, and I loved the inclusion of the era-appropriate medicine, with her doctor friend recommending tisanes, poultices and infusions alongside his more chemical medicine. Herbalism is something of a hobby of mine, and I loved the application of it here.
I think that the book could have ended around 4/5ths of the way through, after the murder had been solved, but the author seemed determined to tie up every single loose end, so there were several chapters of Helena discussing the events of the novel with each of her siblings, and coming to terms with her new life. It wasn’t bad, but it felt like the moment in a pantomime where everything’s resolved, but there are just a few more hoops to jump through: you’re just waiting for the big wedding and final song to wrap up the formula so you can finally go to the loo. It kind of worked, though, in the way that the leisurely pace worked for the rest of the book – there’s no action here, just the slow, gentle going-on of life.
Really quite calming and uplifting – four out of five cats.