Thursday, May 01, 2008

Consequences of Sin [ Review ]

Title: Consequences of Sin

Author: Clare Langley-Hawthorne (official author site; her blog has limited activty)

Copyright: 2008, Penguin (New York; ISBN 9780143112938)

Length: 262 pages

Genre: Historical mystery

Summary: Oxford-educated Ursula Marlow is drawn into the misfortunes of her friend Winifred who is suspected of murdering her lover, Laura Radcliffe. As it happens, Laura is the daughter of Colonel Radcliffe, a business associate of Ursula's father, and upon hearing the news of his daughter's death, the colonel shoots himself in the head. This is Edwardian England in 1910 and upheaval is evident in the rise of interest in woman suffrage as well as in the increasing restiveness of the working class. Left to her own inclinations, Ursula Marlow would like to be actively involved in absolving Winifred of any guilt, but both the society into which she has been born as well as Lord Oliver Wrotham, another business associate of her father's, are actively interested in restricting her pursuit of any investigation. Her gender, her social position and her father's wealth are carefully used to envelope her, perhaps even muffle her. But Ursula manages to break away. Her insistence on learning the truth surrounding the deaths in the Radcliffe family rips away much of her protective cocoon. She must journey to the heart of darkness (in more ways than one) in order to emerge as a woman of strength in a world dominated by imperialism, capitalism, and violence. Langley-Hawthorne offers us an intelligent female protagonist whose behaviors are realistically constrained even as she tries to gain control of her own life.

Extract: Ursula decided that the only thing to do was to sit and wait. The woman, whoever she was, was crouching now in a corner, her hands and feet fast at work stripping a large palm frond into a series of strands and setting them aside. A basket lay half-woven beside her. As she concentrated on her work, Ursula seemed to fade. She had become non-existent. Ursula did not know what to do, except remain patient and silent. Her senses were heightened, and again she was struck by the connections -- the thread of sights and sounds. A sense of the mystical and magical. She could believe almost anything here. The most fantastical tale could easily be true.

Feedback: This book had an intriguing aspect to its plot. The author evokes The Heart of Darkness in a variety of ways -- in Ursula's surname, in a hallucinatory trip down a jungle river -- and consequently, one is on edge, awaiting an outbreak of madness and horror. There are those satisfactory moments when madness emerges in this mystery, but there is also a certain uneasiness as we watch Marlow undergo an emotional shift as she uncovers hidden truths about family and about commercial interests. Will she be all right in the end? There is a sub-thread of romance, but it is handled far more skillfully than in most mysteries. There is a sexual magnetism between the heroine and Lord Wrotham introduced from the first chapter, but not of the sort found in your average throbbing bodice-buster. Other reviewers have noted that this plot might have been more conventionally fleshed out in terms of characters and locations, but I rather think the author intended something of an homage to London's novel but with a feminist bent.

Clare Langley-Hawthorne, an Australian by birth and a lawyer by training, has a second book featuring Ursula Marlowe due out in August of 2008. Based on the title, The Serpent and The Scorpion, and the associated book cover prominently displayed on her official author website, it would appear to have some relation to the Middle East. I have to wonder if she will reveal parallels between Marlow and Gertrude Bell. Her blog hints that the third in the series has to do with the fight in Ireland for home rule. I will certainly be looking for these follow-ups in this series.