Times Literary Supplement
“Absorbing. . . . Literary pastiche at its very best.”
…[an] entirely wonderful mock Victorian novel, written in something like the style of Alice's favorite writer, Wilkie Collins, author of The Moonstone and The Woman in White. It's a melodrama, of course, chock-full of revenge, romance, duplicity, concealed identities and murder most frequentbut melodrama on a grand scale. By any sensible standard, Englishman Michael Cox's convoluted plot is somewhere between outrageous and preposterous. Few characters are who or what they seem, and one key figure has five distinct identities. And yet the novel's fierce suspense and endless surprises, burnished by Cox's gorgeous prose, make it irresistible.
The Washington Post
Set in 1876, Cox's gripping second gothic thriller (after The Meaning of Night) follows the fortunes of 19-year-old orphan Esperanza Gorst, whose guardian charges her to go undercover as a lady's maid. Without knowing precisely why she's doing so, Gorst insinuates herself into the inner circle of Baroness Tansor, the fiancée of the preceding volume's villain, Phoebus Daunt. The fake maid soon learns that her mistress has many secrets, and may, in fact, have been complicit in the death of a former servant. Cox excels at conveying his heroine's conflict over deceiving her employer, especially after learning the role the lady played in her own difficult personal history. While readers unfamiliar with the first book will find themselves deeply engaged by the elegant descriptive prose, those with the benefit of the full context and nuances of The Meaning of Night will better appreciate this sequel. (Oct.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
When orphaned 19-year-old Esperanza Gorst is hired as a lady's maid by Baroness Tansor of Evenwood in 1876, she does not understand her role in a complex plan to restore the Duport family succession. Lady Tansor, the former Emily Carteret, still mourns for her fiancé, Phoebus Daunt, murdered two decades earlier. Through clever spying, Esperanza uncovers information about the murders of Emily's father and Daunt and about Emily's marriage and children. Letters and documents from Esperanza's guardian and others reveal the stories of her own parents and how she had been cheated of her inheritance. Yet, despite realizing that she cannot trust Emily or her unscrupulous associates, Esperanza feels affection and sympathy for the beleaguered Lady. Jealousies among Emily's sons and Esperanza fuel more misunderstandings. Speculations and explanations fill the pages of this novel, which is depicted as Esperanza's secret notebook discovered and annotated by the same editor who presented The Meaning of Night, Cox's debut, which was written from the perspective of Daunt's killer. Cox neatly incorporates the discovery of that manuscript into Esperanza's account, one of myriad connections of plot and characters that make this book an essential read for fans of the first novel. But this atmospheric and engrossing work also can stand alone as a treat for anyone who enjoys Victorian thrillers. Strongly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ6/1/08.]
Cox's second pastiche of Victorian sensational fiction is doubly remarkable for its sure grasp of the genre's idiom and its strange relationship to his first (The Meaning of Night, 2006). Nineteen-year-old Esperanza Gorst arrives at Evenwood on September 4, 1876, to interview for the position of personal maid to Emily Duport, the widowed Baroness Tansor. The advertisement in which Esperanza announced her search for such a post constitutes the first of many deceptions Cox's characters practice on each other, for it was placed not by her, but by her Parisian guardian, Madame de l'Orme, and her old friend Basil Thornhaugh, Esperanza's tutor. Their successful attempt to insinuate Esperanza into Lady Tansor's service is only the first step in what they call "the Great Task," a plot so deep-laid that they can disclose its terms to her only over a period of months. Esperanza, whom everyone recognizes as far too cultured and perceptive to be a lady's maid, soon catches the eyes of both Tansor sons, the Byronic heir Perseus and his more easygoing brother Randolph, and cultivates an ever more intimate relationship with Lady Tansor, still mourning her fiance Phoebus Daunt, a bombastic poet who was murdered by his estranged Eton friend Edward Glyver more than 20 years ago. All the while she burns with curiosity to know the reason her protectors have sent her into this haunted household. But readers who recognize Daunt, Glyver et al. will be far ahead of Esperanza, who doesn't realize that her author has pressed the plot of The Meaning of Night into service as the backstory of what would otherwise be a mystery in the mold of Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. A sequel that will provide utterlydifferent but equally rewarding experiences for readers who have and haven't read its equally leisurely predecessor. Agent: Natasha Fairweather/AP Watt
From the Publisher
"[Listeners] will find themselves deeply engaged by the elegant descriptive prose." Publishers Weekly Starred Review
“Absorbing. . . . Literary pastiche at its very best.”
“Those who have not yet encountered the author's erudite and intricate fictions have a treat in store. . . . This is a mystery worthy of Wilkie Collins, combining all the ingredients of a Gothic romance - disinherited heroines, dissolute heroes, revenge and remorse - with a very modern sense of pace.”
“Entirely wonderful . . . chock-full of revenge, romance, duplicity, concealed identities and suspense and endless surprises, burnished by . [A] delicious piece of storytelling.”
“A terrific modern-day Victorian novel, and a true page-turner in the manner of the great works of that era. . . . The author has woven an enormous and intricate tapestry. . . . Take a chance and words.”
Read an Excerpt
A House of Secrets
I wish you, first of all, to imagine that you are standing beside me, peeping over the rail of an arched and curtained gallery, set — like the stage of some aerial theatre — high above a long and imposing room. From our vantage point, if we push our noses out just a very little way through the narrow gap in the curtains, we may see down to where the assembled company of fine ladies and gentlemen are sitting at table. The thick velvet curtains smell of time and dust, but do not mind them. We shall not be here long.
The room below us, decorated in crimson and gold, is richly furnished and, though grandly proportioned, deliciously warm, even on this chill November evening, from the heat thrown out from blazing piles of pine logs in the two great stone fire-places.
. . . .
We now come to the three members of this evening’s party in which I — and you — have a particular interest: the permanent residents of this great house.
First, of course, my Lady — the former Miss Emily Carteret, now the 26th Baroness Tansor.
Look at her. She sits at the head of the board, as a queen ought, in black and shimmering silver silk. Who can deny that she is beautiful still, or that her fifty-two years have been uncommonly kind to her? In the candlelight below us, fluttering shadows play delightfully across her pale skin (she never allows the gas to be lit: candlelight is so much more flattering).
She captivates and charms the men gathered in her Crimson-and-Gold Dining-Room. See how they ogle her when they think no one else is looking! Mr FitzMaurice, Dr Pordage, even red-faced Sir Lionel Voysey (always comically maladroit in her presence): they all fall under her spell like silly boys, and see her only as she wishes to be seen.
Naturally, her famously tragical past — a father murdered, and the great love of her life slain a month before their marriage — only increases her allure. Men, I think, are such fools, at least men such as these. If she has suffered, well, there is suffering enough in the world, and we shall each have our share before we are released.
Yet she has been richly compensated for her suffering, which is by no means the least of her attractions, especially to her bachelor admirers. Beautiful, romantically scarred by tragedy, the possessor of an immense fortune and an ancient title — and now a widow!
. . . .
The truth is that she will never marry again, and certainly not a prize fool like Mr Maurice FitzMaurice.
Marriage would bring her no material advantage. Nor will she succumb to Love again, for her heart is shut fast against all further assault from that quarter. No man can ever displace the memory of her first and last love, whose terrible death is the great affliction of her life, greater even than the murder of her father. Her late husband, Colonel Zaluski, could not do it — that at least is the common opinion. I never met the gentleman; but Sukie Prout (my great friend below stairs) says that the two of them rubbed along well enough, and that the Colonel had a smiling, accommodating way about him that made you instantly like him. I must suppose, therefore, that his wife liked him too, and that this was enough for her.
The fruits of this unremarkable union are now sitting on either side of their mother: Mr Perseus Duport, the heir to her title and fortune, on her right hand, his younger brother, Mr Randolph Duport, on her left. But they are not at all unremarkable.
Mr Perseus — who has just raised a toast to gallant Lord Edward Duport — will shortly attain his majority, and is very like his mother in appearance: tall, deliberate in movement, watchful in attitude, and with the same fathomless eyes. His hair — as dark as those eyes — is worn long, so that it falls about his shoulders in a consciously romantic way, as befits the poet he aspires to be. He is very proud of his hair, a trait that he also gets from his mother. A most handsome young gentleman, undoubtedly, made more so by a carefully tended black beard, which gives him a dangerously heroic look, exactly like the portrait of the Turkish Corsair that hangs at the foot of the vestibule stairs, and for which, on first seeing it, I thought he must have sat, had it not been painted over twenty years since.
His younger brother, Mr Randolph Duport, is nearly twenty, and is no less striking than his brother, though very differently composed. He is shorter and stockier, stronger in limb, with warm brown eyes (Sukie says they are the spit of his late father’s), a rosy, outdoors colouring, and unruly brown hair. There is not the least resemblance to his mother; nor is there any discernible trace of her temperament in him, which makes people like him far more than Mr Perseus. Unlike his brother, he has none of Lady Tansor’s haughtiness and pride. He is, by contrast, a singularly unaffected and spontaneous soul, appearing to take things as they come, and (so goes the general opinion) hardly ever thinking of consequences, for which I am told he has often felt the sting of his mother’s displeasure. Yet, possessing the uncommon ability to acknowledge his faults, which Mr Perseus appears to lack, he is said never to complain, but promises to apply himself more soberly in the future to the art of properly considering matters.
. . . .
These three persons have become the principal and constant objects of my attention in this house, to which I have been sent for reasons that — at the time of which I am writing — have not been fully revealed to me. Thus I continue to wait, and watch, as I have been instructed to do.