Lady Emily has not had the most auspicious beginnings to married life. Her first husband, essentially a stranger, died as a newlywed. On her second honeymoon, she was shot while helping her husband Colin, a British intelligence agent, on one of his investigations and suffered a subsequent miscarriage. In Dangerous to Know, Tasha Alexander’s fifth Lady Emily novel, the protagonists have returned to Colin’s mother’s house in France to recuperate.
Naturally, this recovery is hampered. First, Colin’s mother clearly doesn’t like Emily. Second, on one of her outings to escape the house, Emily discovers the brutally murdered body of a young woman. Finally, her husband is having serious second thoughts about allowing her to participate fully in his investigations: “I’m sorry, Emily. I do consider you my equal—absolutely,” he says in a statement that may well earn him the title of Most Fully Evolved Male of the Nineteenth Century. Ah, but Colin is not finished. There’s an inevitable caveat: “But we are not the same. We are not capable of handling the same situations in the same ways. Your strengths are not mine and vice versa. I’m qualified for what I do. You’re brilliant and insightful and good at it—but the physical requirements are beyond what can reasonably be expected of a lady. And without being able to handle the physicality of it, you would be putting yourself in danger again and again. I know you hate to hear me say it, but how can I allow that?” He won’t, of course. He’s a proper Victorian, and as a husband he has full authority to make these sorts of decisions for Lady Emily.
Dangerous to Know is in many ways an homage to the Victorian authors, such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon, that Alexander so obviously loves. Gothic elements abound: there is a ghostly face in a tower window; other-worldly cries echo through the night; madness haunts a family; and an asylum looms large in the plot. There is also a brother/sister relationship that is positively Brontëan.
Alexander even provides her own version of the Byronic hero in the person of Sebastian Capet, a gentleman burglar who takes only things he admires, including the Monet he lifts from the artist himself: “Motive may be irrelevant,” the rogue observes, “but I assure you, Monsieur Monet, my heart, my soul want nothing more than to see your work in the hands of those who appreciate it.” Capet has the ability to pop in and out of houses unseen, write flirtatious notes in Greek, and generally be charming enough to make even a cynical twenty-first century reader swoon a little.
Across the series, Alexander has clearly worked very hard to keep her characters true to their time and station while giving them the space to stretch their limits. So Lady Emily is never going to look on a corpse with cold dispassion. But she’s never going to turn away from one, either.