Friday, June 24, 2011

When Nothing is What it Seems: Lady Julia's Return



When it comes to fictional detective couples--at least, in the romantic sense--it’s pretty slim pickings, isn’t it? There’s Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence, Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles, and... well, that pretty much exhausts the list of familiar suspects.   
Television offers up a few more examples. There were bonafide couples Jonathan and Jennifer Hart (“Hart to Hart”) and Stewart and Sally McMillan (“McMillan and Wife”), along with those will-they-or-won’t-they, did-they-or-didn't-they pairings of Laura Holt and Remington Steele (“Remington Steele”), Amanda King and Lee Stetson (“Scarecrow and Mrs. King”), David Addison and Maddie Hayes (“Moonlighting”), and currently, Kate Beckett and Richard Castle (“Castle”).
It’s a tricky proposition, and one which shouldn’t be that surprising, when you think about it. Unless a writer starts with an already-existing couple--two characters in a relationship which comes with built-in expectations of certain behaviors, plus a high degree of familiarity (in all senses of the word)--he or she runs the risk of ruining a vital element that causes the readership to clamor for the next book, or the viewers to continue to tune in like clockwork each week: that delicious, perpetually-unfulfilled sexual tension between the characters, which we find so mesmerizing.
The hard truth is that no matter how much we might claim to want an end to all that unrealized longing--that sense of “Do it, already!”--there isn’t, necessarily, much further for the characters (or their relationship) to go, once the deed has been done. (As the best example of such coupling ruining the whole feel of a story/show, I offer up "Moonlighting", again; once David and Maddie did away with the perpetual yearning, the magic pretty much died right along with it.) 
Such thoughts were, therefore, skipping around my mind when I picked up Deanna Raybourn’s The Dark Enquiry, featuring recently-married sleuths Nicholas Brisbane and Lady Julia Brisbane. As the fifth entry in her fine Lady Julia series, Raybourn faced the unenviable task of returning the Brisbanes to normal life, following their meeting and courtship (in the first three books), and their honeymoon (in the fourth). Would she be able to keep the spark--such a big part of her earlier books--alive... or would the spark prove to have exhausted itself? Would the playfulness and charm still be there, or would everything be sort of flat? Clearly, nothing short of diving feet-first into the book would do, if I wanted to find the answers to my questions...
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Freshly arrived back in London in 1889 after a triumphant return from their honeymoon/latest case in India, finds the Brisbanes attempting to settle into some sort of “normal” married life. They’ve taken a house of their own, which Julia is trying--somewhat unsuccessfully--to staff (having brought only Aquinas, her long-time butler from her previous marriage, and Morag, her rather-unpleasant, ex-prostitute-cum-ladies‘ maid, with her). 
Brisbane, meanwhile, has opted to keep his former digs, and is in the process of turning them into a place of business for his--well, make that, “their”--private detective practice. Julia has finally managed, it seems, to persuade him of her invaluableness to his profession, and insists he consider her his partner in business, as well as marriage.
Naturally, Brisbane is reluctant about the whole arrangement... but somewhat helpless, as always, to Julia’s methods of persuasion (not the least of which is her absolute refusal to take “no” for an answer). So, while she muddles through some of the peskier domestic issues, he works at setting up their offices (including the addition of a darkroom, for Julia’s particular use). 
They haven’t long to wait for their first client, though. After Julia happens to spot her elder brother, Lord Bellmont, furtively leaving the offices as she’s approaching them one day--a visit which Brisbane blithely denies when she questions him somewhat obliquely later that same day--her suspicions and insatiable curiosity are aroused.
What follows comes as no surprise to anyone who’s followed the vivacious Lady Julia’s antics; she (of course) simply dons another of her masculine costumes and trails Brisbane when he goes out that evening. His (their) destination? The private Ghost Club, in which a French madame holds forth each night, conducting by-invitation-only seances for an exclusive, all-male clientele.
Perhaps Brisbane is attempting to prove the woman a fake, Julia guesses. After all, he is half-Romany, blessed (or cursed, as he would have it) with the sight, himself. Bellmont, she assumes, probably wishes to have the woman exposed after she defrauded either him or his wife. Pleased that she has figured things out on her own, a mustachioed Julia settles in for an evening’s enlightenment.
The reality, as you may have guessed, is nothing of the sort. (Julia is quite bright... but also rather prone to jump on the first feasible--even if utterly wrong-headed--solution, and then to hang onto it for dear life, until the point at which she’s figuratively dragged kicking and screaming from the idea.)
No, when Brisbane finds her out, while at the Club, and the pair of them proceed to witness an accidental death--which is far more likely to be a murder, given the circumstances--Julia (and we) realize that something much more serious than phony messages from the beyond is afoot... and that someone with deadly intentions is playing for keeps. The problem, of course, is figuring out just game, precisely, is being played... before it's too late, and someone else dies.
As the intrepid, newly-married duo hare all over London and the surrounding countryside--bickering and fighting just like always (before making up in suitably-rewarding fashion)--we can do little more than watch with bated breath as they meet up with sundry scallawags, curmudgeons, spies, charmers, a camp of gypsies, and (as always) several of Julia’s many siblings... never quite knowing from what direction the latest surprise--or danger--might come.
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But, I'm sure you're asking, what of the end result of Lady Julia and Brisbane’s first official case as partners (aside from catching the baddies, of course)? Have they--and has Ms. Raybourn--successfully overcome the bugaboo of seeing a relationship that moves into permanent territory also turn into the death knell for a series? As far as I’m concerned, The Dark Enquiry absolutely ensures that they’ve escaped that dreadful fate; the duo are as much fun as ever, with Julia’s snappy/sarcastic banter and Brisbane’s long-suffering impatience in fine fettle, here. These two aren’t the sort to settle peaceably into yawn-inducing domestic bliss, or to fawn over each other with any of that awful saccharine-sweetness. Their humor, intelligence, quirkiness, and prickliness continue to rule the day, and I’m already looking forward to seeing what their next outing brings... certain that it will be another delightfully-cheeky romp.

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 4 out of 5 Mousies!

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