Victorian adventuress and butterfly hunter Veronica Speedwell receives an invitation to visit the Curiosity Club, a ladies-only establishment for daring and intrepid women. There she meets the mysterious Lady Sundridge, who begs her to take on an impossible task—saving society art patron Miles Ramsforth from execution. Accused of the brutal murder of his artist mistress Artemisia, Ramsforth will face the hangman’s noose in a week’s time if Veronica cannot find the real killer.
But Lady Sundridge is not all that she seems, and unmasking her true identity is only the first of the many secrets Veronica must uncover. Together with her natural historian colleague Stoker, Veronica races against time to find the true murderer—a ruthless villain who not only took Artemisia’s life in cold blood but is happy to see Ramsforth hang for the crime. From a Bohemian artists’ colony to a royal palace to a subterranean grotto with a decadent history, the investigation proves to be a very perilous undertaking indeed….
I stumbled upon Deanna Raybourn’s first Veronica Speedwell novel, A Curious Beginning at the library last spring and was 1) immediately hooked, and 2) disappointed to find out that while it was the first of a new series, book two had not been published yet. And so when I heard what the new title was going to be, I kept checking back with the library to see when A Perilous Undertaking would be available and placed a hold for it. When I received the notification that it was in, I checked it out as soon as I could and once again was hooked within the first few paragraphs.
Veronica, our heroine and narrator has all the charm, wit, and beauty of a proper Victorian lady, but with a decidedly modern view of education, feminism, and sexuality that somehow does not lift the reader out of the book’s Victorian setting. I think that stems from the fact that Deanna Raybourn has said that writing about people from the 1800s isn’t all that different from writing about people now- we’re all individuals with the same sorts of hopes and fears, we just wear different clothes and use different transportation methods. Of course there are characters who are shocked by Veronica’s ideas and her history (though she takes measures to ensure that her foreign escapades will affect her reputation as little as possible while she’s in England and publishes her papers on lepidoptery as V. Speedwell), but there are people in the 21st century who would be aghast at her bluntness regarding sex and marriage. We’re not so different from the Victorians, even if we are separated from them by nearly 120 years.
But enough of that. Veronica and her colleague, Stoker, are scientists not detectives and so they go about their investigation in a different fashion from the police of Scotland Yard. By using reason and logic, they gather their suspects, interview them, and poke them with metaphorical sticks to find the guilty party. This doesn’t mean that they don’t gather clues- they do that- but it’s not like reading a Sherlock Holmes story. Veronica has spent her life studying people as thoroughly as her beloved butterflies, and so she knows how to handle people and convince them to tell her things they normally would not admit to, whether it’s through words or body language.
Throughout A Perilous Undertaking, Veronica is witty and charming, and she delights in blithely shocking people like she has no idea that her lifestyle is out of the ordinary (though she can read everyone in the room like a book), and though Stoker makes me want to roll my eyes with his occasional Victorian stodginess he, too, is ahead of his time. There was never a point where I wanted to put the book down because it was boring or slow. Strategic action scenes and well-crafted interviews keep the book moving at a quick pace, though the best parts are the conversations between Veronica and Stoker. I had a good guess as to the murderer’s identity about halfway through, but that didn’t mean the reveal at the end wasn’t exciting to read. I might have known the killer’s identity, but I did not suspect the motive.
Victorian era mysteries are my favorites within the mystery genre, and Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell novels are making their way to the top of my list, right up there with Will Thomas’s Barker and Llewellyn series. The only thing I don’t like about A Perilous Undertaking is the long wait until the next one comes out!
“The Beauclerk girls had a habit of driving away hapless governesses with well-timed hysterics or the odd spider in the bed. I rather thought it a pity that no one had told them about the efficacy of syrup of figs dribbled into the morning tea, but it was not my place to tutor them in misdemeanors.”
– Deanna Raybourn, A Perilous Undertaking
P.S. After reading a variety of other book blogs, I’ve decided to change up the format of my reviews as I’m not very good at summarizing books and other people have done a much better job at doing so, leaving me free to spend more time on the review itself. This particular synopsis comes from Raybourn’s own website.