on an unexpected niche

We all know bad things come in threes. Apparently, London-based historical mysteries with a female lead come in fours. For those who are unaware, NetGalley is a website where publishers offer digital and audio ARCs (advance reader copies) to interested readers in return for their completely unfiltered reviews. It’s the best kind of website to windowshop on when you’re trying to avoid work. It doesn’t cost you anything and gives you whole new worlds in return.

Over the past few months, I mindlessly requested several different books solely based on their titles and covers, without looking at the blurbs. A way to push myself out of my comfort zone, I thought. Except I inadvertently found myself right in the core of my comfort zone. Okay, granted, there was one book that had ‘murder’ in the title, so I take responsibility for that. The rest? Pure chance.

We start in 1585, with A Spy at Hampton Court. Kit Scarlett is a gentlewoman spy, the righthand of spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham. This is the third book in a series (which I did not know previously), but it definitely can be read on its own. The Queen is sick and needs to be guarded against a rumoured gunpowder plot. Kit and Iomhar Blackwood are sent to Hampton Court where the Queen is to foil the assassination attempt. Once there, Kit realises someone close to the Queen is poisoning her, the titular spy. I was so glad to see Kit written as a very competent spy. Iomhar helps, but there is no doubt that Kit is the best. The book is definitely more of a thriller adventure than a murder mystery, but close enough. Also, the interactions between Kit and the Queen are hilarious.

The Square of Sevens is set in the 1700s, spanning Cornwall, Bath, London, and Devon. This is a long book, and there are several secrets and betrayals and murders and twists. The murders are perhaps not at the heart of the book, but very close. The square of sevens is an ancient method of predicting fortunes, which Red learnt from her Cornish fortune-telling father. When he dies, she becomes the ward of a gentleman scholar in Bath. As she grows up, questions from her past lead her directly into the eye of a storm, a raging legal battle between two of the most powerful families in England. Was my father a scoundrel or a saint? Who was my mother? Who am I? The book is also interestingly structured into four sections, each linked to a square of sevens fortune dealt for a different character. If you’re someone who likes to analyse books, you will love rereading the fortunes, connecting them to the events of each chapter, and discovering how the author has sprinkled clues to the numerous plot twists throughout.

Moving on the early 19th century, we meet Audrey Sinclair, Duchess of Fournier, in Murder at the Seven Dials. When her husband is accused of murdering an opera singer, his supposed mistress, she resolves to clear his name by solving the mystery herself. Bow Street Officer Hugh Marsden is less convinced of the Duke’s innocence, but he gets dragged into Audrey’s amateur investigations nonetheless. Audrey is a very relatable protagonist. She is naive and makes several mistakes as can be expected of an amateur sleuth. However, she does have one ace up her sleeve. Audrey has a supernatural ability that allows her to see an object’s memories. An obviously useful skill for a murder investigation. This book was a lot of fun to read, though the pacing was off in the first few chapters with a lot of pertinent information shared with the reader fairly early on. Regardless, I am excited that this book is the first in a series, The Bow Street Duchess Mysteries.

And finally, we reach 1873. The last book is The London Seance Society, possibly my favourite of the lot. Lenna Wickes requests acclaimed spiritualist Vaudeline D’Allaire’s assistance to find the truth behind her sister’s death. Vaudeline agrees but is called to help solve a different murder by The London Seance Society. Lenna accompanies her as an apprentice, and the two women find themselves in the middle of a massive conspiracy with Lenna’s sister at the heart of it. The whole novel is bathed in the supernatural, with ghosts and seances very much intertwined with the mystery, unlike in Murder at the Seven Dials, which reads more like a modern mystery set in the real world with Audrey being the supernatural exception. The book grips you and doesn’t let go until you reach the end. And though I loved the mystery, the true stars of the show were the characters and the beautifully written romance sub-plot. Chef’s kiss.

Regardless of what I said at the beginning about wanting to step outside of my comfort zone, there is something liberating about niches. At this point, I think I should just lean into accepting the genre as a part of myself instead of trying to fix the problem. Just as well, considering the next five books on my NetGalley shelf are all murder mysteries.

Thank you NetGalley and the publishers for sending these books for review consideration. All opinions are my own.

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