Wednesday 8 January 2020

A Discovering Diamonds review of 1888: The Dead and the Desperate by A.E. Wasserman reviewed by John Darling

"The story is an interesting combination of a who-dunnit and a drawing-room drama"

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Fictional Saga


This is the fourth story in a series about a fictitious British aristocrat named Lord Langsford. A widower now for three years, Langsford has drifted into deep regret and remorse over his wife’s death and his own lack of purpose. The story opens with Langsford endeavouring to find peace on his country estate, well away from the temptations and meaningless entertainments of London in the ‘Season’. His sojourn is short-lived. Three gambling friends soon arrive to drag him back to the card tables and balls. Once back in London, Langsford finds himself involved in a murder enquiry into the shocking death of his friend Edwin Percy. It is a frightening situation because Langsford fears he might be the murderer and there is a tenacious Scotland Yard detective inspector investigating the case.

Having not read any of this series before I was somewhat surprised by the opening largely because the title suggests the novel is going to be a gallop across the Wild West with a six-gun and this is clearly very English historical crime. The cover of course, which I didn’t notice on my Kindle, places it firmly in central London. The story, in fact, is an interesting combination of a who-dunnit and a Henry James/Edith Wharton drawing-room drama, examining as it does, Lord Langsford’s aristocratic lifestyle and world view in contrast to the behaviour and expectations of a family of social climbing New Yorkers.

The Americans are in England to trade their daughters and niece; the exchange being hard-earned dollars for a title. The late Lord Percy, in dire economic straits, had acquired the niece, Grace Westfield, in just such a transaction. Grace combines the unusual attributes of being both sensible and sensitive, but she is not pleased about being confined to mourning and unable to finish the Season, a situation that leads her to live under Lord Langsford’s roof, first at his country estate, then in London. I found this part of the story rather a stretch; I doubt very much a young, unattached woman would have been allowed to share a home with a man not her husband in this period, but it is fundamental to the plot, and the plot is compelling. Wasserman’s knowledge of London during the 1880s is otherwise sound, especially relating to the detective, Abberline, and the Metropolitan Police force of the time.

I should perhaps mention the way in which a common language divides the English speakers and readers in this story. On a personal level (as a British English reader), I did find some of the Americanisms used in both narrative and dialogue (of the Londoners) unfortunate, especially the frequent references to ‘the help’ when describing the strict, self-governing, well-respected staff of a London town house or ancestral country estate. I also found the constant use of the verb ‘passed’ and ‘passing’ as a euphemism for ‘dead’ or ‘death’ irritating. Some of the names caused me some minor confusion, too: there is a Miss Westfield and a Lord Westchester and two Edwins (one being a shopkeeper). Langsford’s landau drivers are called Pelham and Cavesson, though, which was a nice touch.

These details do not detract from the story itself, however. Attractive young American women on the arms of eligible English aristocrats, a dockside opium den, a valuable Bruges tapestry, and a tenacious policeman travelling the length and breadth of England by train to catch his murderer, combined with the inner thoughts of two likeable people caught up in an appalling scandal, make for a satisfying read. Recommended for winter evenings by the fire.

© John Darling
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