Former Franklin novelist Tasha Alexander has a way with a lead, and the opening line of her newest Victorian mystery A Crimson Warning, is a prime example: “I was dancing while he burned, but I had no way of knowing that, not then, while spinning on the tips of my toes, my husband’s grip firm around my waist as he led me around the ballroom again and again, glistening beads of sweat forming on his forehead.” Lady Emily Hargreaves and her husband Colin are back in London to enjoy the Season, a time marked by balls and visits and social events, although Lady Emily hopes her season will be spent in studying Greek and joining the women’s suffrage movement. Both plans are interrupted, first by murder—a man is chained and burned to death in his warehouse—and then by the work of an anonymous vigilante, who secretly paints the doors of certain homes red, a sign that some scandalous family secret will soon be revealed.
For the characters in Victorian novels, of course, respectability is everything, and the London socialites in A Crimson Warning are both obsessed with their neighbors’ scandals and petrified that they will be the next target. As Lady Emily’s friend Ivy notes: “The tension continues here in London. Lady Glover’s kidnapping has made everyone’s nerves more raw. They’re all looking for red paint and accusing each other of sins more nefarious than their own. How much longer can this go on?” Lady Emily’s race to solve this mystery takes her to the highest halls of power and to the most wretched of London factories.
Emily continues to evolve in each novel, and Alexander skillfully handles those changes in a realistic way. By now, Lady Emily and Colin have managed an agreement about their relationship. Theirs is a marriage of equals; he respects her contributions to their sleuthing, and she is comfortable enough in her role to disagree with him publicly. Emily never forgets that she is in a fortunate position, through both birth and marriage, to indulge her interests, and another sign that her world continues to expand beyond dresses and balls is her witness to the suffering of the working class. Here is her description of a match factory: “We followed him again, out of the main work room, and I nearly retched when we crossed into what he called the infirmary. Rickety cots, their linens worn and dirty, were pushed so close together there was no space for a nurse to walk between them—not that there was a nurse anywhere to be seen. Every makeshift bed was full, and the stench in here was worse than that of the sulphur and phosphorus. This place smelled of death and decay, of blood and urine. Our presence was greeted with barely coherent moans as the patients struggled to sit up and reach for us. I didn’t need to understand their words to know they needed help.”
Alexander subtly responds to the charge—raised by critics of every period novel featuring an independent-minded heroine—that her novels are historically inaccurate by contrasting Emily with her friend Ivy, who is both attracted to and afraid of Emily’s iconoclasm. Ivy can’t master her friend’s ability to withstand society’s disapproval. In fact, Ivy has her own secret, and she is terrified that her front step will be the next splattered with paint. Still, as Alexander knows, there’s something compelling about people who are willing to break barriers; their courage is often contagious. Readers should not be surprised if, by the next Lady Emily mystery, Ivy begins to look beyond Victorian boundaries as well.