Narrated by Kate Reading
This second book in Sherry Thomas’ Lady Sherlock series is one of my most awaited releases of this year, and it fulfilled all my expectations. A Conspiracy in Belgravia picks up the day after the previous book, A Study in Scarlet Women concludes, and while might not be absolutely necessary to have read or listened to that in order to fully appreciate this latest instalment, I’d strongly recommend it, as one of the real delights of both books is the way the author presents and develops her characters. While we’re given enough information here to work out who is who and how everyone relates to one another, it’s not the same as experiencing it first hand in book one.
Please note that as this is an ongoing series, there are spoilers for the previous book in this review.
Listeners of A Study in Scarlet Woman will know that Charlotte, having thoroughly disgraced herself, ran away from home and is now living with Mrs. John Watson, a former actress and widow of an army officer. She and Charlotte have gone into the private investigation business together; Charlotte presents herself as the sister of Sherlock Holmes, an invalid with an exceptional talent for detection who listens to his clients from his sick bed while his “sister” speaks to them from the sitting room next door. Only a very few people know that Sherlock doesn’t exist, and the aim is to keep it that way.
Having solved the high-profile Sackville murder case, Holmes’ next undertaking starts out as something entirely more domestic when Charlotte receives a letter from a Mrs. Finch requesting a meeting. Recognising the notepaper and typeface, Charlotte realises at once that the letter must actually have been written by the wife of her dearest friend, Ash – Lord Ingram Ashburton.
While Mrs. Watson is concerned about a potential conflict of interest, Charlotte points out that if Lady Ingram is in trouble, she is as deserving of help as the next person, and the meeting is arranged. ‘Mrs. Finch’ explains that many years ago, before she was married to a man chosen by her parents because they were in desperate need of funds, she had fallen in love with a young accountant named Myron Finch. Even though nothing could come of their romance, they agreed that once every year, on the Sunday before Finch’s birthday, they would walk past the Albert Memorial at 3pm, not to meet or speak; just to see that the other is still alive and well. But this year, Mr. Finch failed to keep the appointment, and Lady Ingram is frantic with worry; she wants Sherlock Holmes to find Myron Finch and make sure he is alright. While listening to Lady Ingram’s story in the next room, Mrs. Watson is disturbed to notice a change in the normally utterly unflappable Charlotte – a change that is explained when Charlotte tells her friend that Myron Finch is her illegitimate half-brother.
While Charlotte and Mrs. Watson begin their investigation into the whereabouts of Mr. Finch, Charlotte is surprised to receive an offer of marriage – the second – from Lord Bancroft Ashburton, one of Lord Ingram’s older brothers. Rather like Mycroft Holmes in Conan Doyle’s original stories, Bancroft works for the government as some sort of spymaster, and in many ways, he is Charlotte’s perfect match. Like her, Bancroft is dispassionate, unsentimental and extremely logical, yet in spite of her pragmatism, Charlotte can’t really envisage herself marrying him. Such a marriage would undoubtedly bring advantages, foremost of which is that it would allow Charlotte to repair her relationship with her parents so that she will be to take care of her sisters – Olivia, who is prone to melancholy and Bernadine, whose mental acuity will never be beyond that of a child. The downside is that Bancroft expects Charlotte to cease her work as Sherlock Holmes… and she isn’t sure she is prepared to make that particular sacrifice.
There’s such a lot going on in this book that it’s impossible for me to say much more in this review without giving too much away or writing a ten-page essay. Add to the above a mystery concerning a woman who believes her father’s housekeeper is trying to poison her, a potential romance for Olivia, a reappearance of the Marbleton siblings (from book one), a murder in Hounslow, an ingenious cypher, and the mention once again of a shadowy background figure whose name unsettles even the normally unflappable Bancroft – the mysterious Moriarty – and I think it’s enough to say that Sherry Thomas has penned another clever, complex and imaginative mystery that will draw you in completely and not leave you alone until it’s solved. Even more impressive, however, is the way that Ms. Thomas never loses sight of the more human and personal aspects of the story. Agatha Christie is regarded as a great writer of mysteries, but I never felt her characters were living, breathing people – whereas that’s never the case with Sherry Thomas (who also knocks Christie’s mysteries into a cocked hat!). At the same time as she is pulling together all her disparate threads to culminate in an unexpected event towards the end of the novel which is sure to have repercussions throughout the next book (and possibly beyond), she also continues to explore and develop her characters and the relationships between them. For those who want to know these things, this is very much an historical mystery with just the slightest whiff of romance; it’s clear there is something more than friendship between Charlotte and Ash, but given he’s married and Charlotte’s disinclination towards the romantic, there isn’t any development in that direction. Mind you, it’s impossible to miss the sparks that fly between them whenever they’re in a scene together.
Kate Reading is the perfect narrator for this series, and I hope she remains with it for the duration. She’s received so much high praise here that at AudioGals it’s hard to know what else to say, but there’s no denying that her ability to deliver the dry, witty bon mot with supreme precision is second to none and that it suits the author’s similarly down-to-earth, deadpan humour to a T. Ms. Reading differentiates the fairly large cast of female characters extremely well and is similarly effective with the men, of whom there are a smaller number. Brothers Lord Ingram and Lord Bancroft are individually recognisable, and while the difference in vocal characterisation is subtle, it’s not difficult to tell them apart in the one or two scenes in which they appear together. Her portrayal of Charlotte is brilliantly aligned to the physical description of the character in the book. Charlotte is blonde, blue-eyed, petite and pleasingly rounded, but behind that façade s a razor-sharp mind. To quote from A Study in Scarlet Women:
“…the Good Lord went to ridiculous lengths to make sure that one of the finest minds in existence was housed in a body least likely to be suspected of it.”
Kate Reading’s version of Charlotte is exactly like this; she raises the pitch of her voice a little and softens the timbre, giving the impression of a young woman who could quite easily be a simpering ninny, but there’s an undercurrent of something beneath that lets us know she is the farthest thing from a simpering ninny one can get.
I can’t do anything other than strongly recommend A Conspiracy in Belgravia, but I’ll issue one – no, two – warnings. One – this is an audiobook you need to concentrate on, so it might not be such a great idea to listen to it while you’re doing the chores. Two – the last line will have you howling at the realisation that there’s a year to wait before you can get your hands and ears on book three.
TITLE: A Conspiracy in Belgravia
AUTHOR: Sherry Thomas
NARRATED BY: Kate Reading
GENRE: Historical Mystery
STEAM FACTOR: You can play it out loud
REVIEWER: CazBuy A Conspiracy in Belgravia by Sherry Thomas on Amazon