Now that she’s in her forties, Cordelia Preston’s acting career is all but over, as is that of her best friend Amaryllis Spoons. After an ignominious exit from a third-rate tour of Hamlet in which they were to be replaced by an elephant, the workhouse looms in both their imaginations. Then Cordelia has an idea that will secure not only their futures, but those of Rillie Spoons’s mad mother and her murder-obsessed companion Regina. With the aid of her aunt’s former mentor, Monsieur Roland, she combines her two inherited talents and sets up as a Lady Phreno-Mesmerist. Business quickly booms; mesmerism is all the rage in early-Victorian London and its practise by a lady is a novelty. But just when they have all the success they could wish for, it all falls apart. Cordelia has something more in her past than treading the boards, and that something more has come back to bite. Then a prominent citizen is murdered, and Inspector Rivers of the recently-formed detective division is anxious to get the papers off his back by doing whatever it takes to catch the killer. Cordelia is called as a witness before the coroner, and a scandal promptly ensues. For Cordelia is not eager to talk; and while a lady mesmerist is one thing, setting up a business without the aid of a man and daring to dispense advice to young ladies about wedding nights is entirely another.
Although there is a corpse, this is as much a straight historical novel as it is a mystery: the body doesn't appear (not in lifeless form, at least) until halfway through the book. And, unusually, Cordelia’s past is revealed early, so there’s no mystery there. Once the corpse is actually produced, though, there’s an investigation complete with police and the puzzle is not only whodunit, by why Cordelia won’t speak about what she may or may not have seen that night. It does take a while to get going, but the story is so interesting that the pace an atmospheric stroll rather than a dull drag. The historical setting was well done and ranged from cheap actors’ hangouts to the homes of the nobility, and I’d like to learn more now about mesmerism and hypnotism. I liked both Cordelia and Rillie; they had a great friendship and were, for their day, quite audacious in their plan to stay out of the workhouse. I enjoyed watching their growing success and thought it a wonderful change to see a pair of middle-aged women in a novel’s starring rôles (I can’t remember the last time that happened). It was impossible not to be moved by the events that followed the murder, and there were more than half a dozen characters that I hoped would get a happy ending. This is a book that will keep both the historical fiction and mystery fans happy.