The Lady Emily Series by Tasha Alexander

76-80 in my 2011 book blogging challenge.

I’ve now read all six of Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily mysteries, but I’m counting five of them in my 2011 challenge because the sixth one I actually read in 2012. I’ll include the sixth book in this post, though. It will just have to exist in a netherworld of books that count for neither 2011 nor 2012.

I started this series because I’d read the Lady Julia series by Deanna Raybourn, and I was looking for something similar. The Lady Emily books basically fit into the same category and subcategory as the Lady Julia books. They are romantic mysteries set in Victorian England. They are both based on the premise that a society lady starts to come into her own after the murder of her husband. Both Lady Julia and Lady Emily find they have a penchant for solving crimes as they investigate their husbands’ deaths. They both fall for their investigating partners, and they both struggle to balance their new relationships with their newly formed sense of independence.

These are definitely the same sorts of books — murder mysteries with a splash of romance and a splash of history. They are light reading and what I wanted in the way of comfort reading as I wound down from a stressful semester.

Other than fitting into the same category, though, the two aren’t really that much alike. They have very different tones and personalities.

I enjoyed the Lady Emily books, but it took me some time to warm up to them because I wanted them to be more like the Lady Julia books. The characters are so quirky and engaging in the Lady Julia books. I didn’t think the main characters had that much personality at first in the Lady Emily books. They had to grow on me. In the end, I liked them just fine, but I really wasn’t sure about them at first.

In particular, I thought Colin Hargreaves of the Lady Emily series was a fairly huge disappointment after Nicholas Brisbane of the Lady Julia books. I thought Colin had no personality and was basically a non-entity in the stories. I thought the romance was unconvincing in the Lady Emily books because we had seen no defining moments for Colin’s character. I just had to take Emily’s word for it that she had fallen for Colin. I didn’t see it happen.

We do learn more about Colin as the books progress, and I finally got to the point where I was more interested in seeing Emily make a go of it with her new husband than I was in seeing her run off with one of the bad guys who did have some personality. It took me some time, though, to warm up to Colin, and I never did think he was anything to compare to Brisbane.

Colin is like the grownups in the Nancy Drew books. They always manage to conveniently disappear while the good stuff is going on so that Nancy and her sidekicks can save the day all on their own. We never do really see Colin and Emily in action together. We only see them together for relationship scenes, not for life scenes or danger scenes. This is why the relationship isn’t as convincing to me as it might be, and it’s why Colin isn’t as convincing as a romantic hero. He’s just the grownup in the background.

That said, the Lady Emily books are well researched. The little tidbits of real history thrown in are charming and and even somewhat informative. Lady Emily develops an interest in antiquities when she learns that they were something of an obsession for her first husband. She learns this after his death, of course, since she really barely knew him. She also sets out to improve her mind by learning to read Homer in Greek and Virgil in Latin, but she still has a raging love for the most mindless sorts of novels of her day. Who couldn’t love her for that?

I wasn’t sure about Emily at first, but I came to love this combination of the serious the sublime and the silly in her mental pursuits. Truly, she’s just a typical English major born before her time. That, or much more likely, she’s the projection of a contemporary English major’s mentality onto a Victorian character. Either way, she won me over in the end.

The books in this series are as follows.

1. And Only to Deceive.

Emily was married only a short time before the husband she barely knew went off on a hunt never to return. She’s left with a fortune, an opportunity for a kind of independence she never thought possible, and a large sense of guilt that she’s the only person not experiencing genuine grief over her husband’s death. She sets out to learn more about him, and in the process stumbles across information to indicate he may have been murdered.

This sets her off on her new career as an amateur detective and sets up her reason for working closely with the man who will eventually become her next husband.

I enjoyed this book, but I didn’t think I was going to at first. I didn’t much care for Emily until after she started to discover that there was more to her than the society lady her mother had reared her to be.

This might not be my favorite of the series, but you’ve got to start here if you are going to read these books. This is where you are introduced to Emily’s world.

2. A Poisoned Season.

This one might be one of my favorites. Here we meet Sebastian, who is one of my favorite characters. He is a thief who claims to fall in love with Emily when he breaks into her house one night and sees her sleeping. He leaves romantic notes for her, and behaves outrageously. He isn’t exactly one of the good guys, but isn’t an outright bad guy either. I wanted her to run off with Sebastian in this book. It was clear by this time that she had a budding romance with Colin, but it was not clear by this time what it was about Colin we were supposed to like.

Of course, there is murder to investigate, and of course Emily and Colin solve it together. At least she solves part of it, and he solves part of it. They never seen to actually work together. Emily is just beginning to assert her independence, and presumably it would be too much of an infringement on her sense of self if a man helped her too much. Colin is the right man for her in that he manages to disappear at all the right times for her to work things out for herself.

Nonetheless, this one is a charmer, not because of Emily and Colin, but because of the other characters who are funny and engaging in ways the main two have not yet managed.

3. A Fatal Waltz.

I think this may have been my least favorite book of the series. I didn’t like it because people were cruel to Emily in it, and I thought I had signed on for something where I wasn’t going to have to feel sad or disturbed. I expected (and got) murder and intrigue, but I didn’t expect emotional cruelty. It hadn’t been that kind of series so far. It all worked out, though. The mean people were the ones who died.

Book 3 does serve the purpose of developing Colin’s character a little more by giving him some background. He seems like a much more interesting person by the end even though he wasn’t even around for most of the book. He and Emily are engaged by this time, and he did what he does best. He disappeared to do his own work long enough for Emily to solve the mystery.

4. Tears of Pearl.

This one I also saw as a weaker link. Emily and Colin are married now and on their honeymoon in Constantinople. The fact that it is their honeymoon doesn’t prevent a mysterious murder from landing in their path, though, nor does it prevent Colin from taking off in pursuit of his own investigations long enough to leave Emily to risk her life facing down the bad guy. All that seems to be the standard fare for the series, so that’s not my complaint for this book.

Mainly, I thought it attempted to address cultural differences that couldn’t possibly be dealt with sufficiently in this type of light romantic mystery. I would have preferred never venturing as far as Constantinople. Once we went there, of course, Emily had to investigate the crime inside a harem. While that might have been all very interesting, it also struck me as a little cartoonish and possibly even a little culturally insensitive. I wasn’t much convinced by the characters Emily meets in the harem. I basically thought it would have taken a longer book with a more serious tone to really show us the comparisons and contrasts of the life of an English lady and the life of a harem wife. I thought this book ended up imposing the tone and manners of English drawing rooms in places where they didn’t belong.

But that’s probably too much of a criticism. The series isn’t trying to be serious literature. It is what it is. It’s purpose is escapism, and that it accomplishes.

It’s an enjoyable enough book. It’s just not my favorite.

5. Dangerous to Know.

I thought this book got back on track in that the mystery itself was more interesting to me. Emily is very depressed, though, because she has lost a baby and isn’t sure she can get pregnant again, and Colin is sometimes likeable and sometimes not.

Emily finds a body right off the bat, and there are tales of ghosts as well as a series of characters all suffering from mental illnesses. They are in the French countryside now, staying with Colin’s mother while Emily recovers, and the whole thing is very Gothic. I’m sure the foray into the Gothic is what I like. This is what a good English lady investigating murders is supposed to encounter.

I don’t like that Emily’s injuries mean she might not be able to ever have children. There is a feminist tone running throughout the books. Each new episode provides a new way for Emily to learn more about what she’s capable of. I understand the impulse to avoid writing children into the story. It would be a little more awkward to confront murderers while pushing a baby in a pram (not that an English lady would push her own pram). I understand; I just don’t like it. I want to see her do it all. I want to see her juggling a family along with her investigations and her feminist ideals.

As for Colin, he comes across as both more assertive and more embarrassing in this book. He tries to intervene in Emily’s investigations for the first time. He suddenly decides it’s his job to protect her after she loses their baby and nearly dies in the process. That’s not where I see him as assertive, though. He apologizes for his decisions too many times to come across as a tough guy. I just found that embarrassing for him. Where I saw him as stronger and more likeable was when he defended Emily against his mother’s criticisms. That may have been the first time in the whole series that I really admired him. Sebastian was even back in this book, and I was okay with the fact that Emily didn’t throw Colin over to run off with a thief.

6. A Crimson Warning.

This latest book is probably my favorite. Emily and Colin are back home in London. The murder they are investigating is surrounded by political intrigue, and all of polite London society is threatened. This seems more appropriate grounds to me for a Victorian murder mystery. Plus, Emily’s butler is back in the story, and next to the thief Sebastian, Davis the butler is my favorite character. I don’t necessarily want Emily to run off with him, but it would please me if he took a more active part in the investigations in future books.

There was nothing about this book that outright annoyed me. It was just what I expected, an enjoyable light read. The relationship between Emily and Colin has settled into something that is more convincing to me in this book as well. I guess I didn’t realize until I sat down to write my responses just how much it bothered me that Colin didn’t come across as a strong male lead in these books. The romance is such a big part of the story in every book, but it isn’t until well into the series that I even care whether Emily stays with Colin or not. He just didn’t seem to be nearly as dashing as the book said he was.

I think this is because the path has been cleared for Emily to do most of the work, and Colin has just been written out of the way. He’s also been written as a man who is extraordinarily agreeable to a woman pursuing her own interests. That’s all well and good, but his utter lack of response to most of what happens to Emily through most of the books makes him come across as a weak character rather than a supportive partner. He is more interesting in the last couple of books than he was in the first few books, though. Maybe as this series continues, he will continue to develop.

So that’s basically my assessment of this series. They really are charming mysteries. They just happen to be threaded with what I saw as an annoyingly weak romance. Maybe I’m just not a Colin girl. Or maybe I was still just too enamored with Nicholas Brisbane of the Lady Julia series to give Colin much of a chance.

If we could pick teams here, and I could put on a T-shirt that said Brisbane, it would probably make me feel better about the whole thing. Meanwhile, I really do look forward to any possible future books from both Tasha Alexander and Deanna Raybourn. Regardless of my criticisms, I’ll probably pre-order the next Lady Emily book on the first day I hear about it.

As Lady Emily continually pointed out, just because a book isn’t great literature doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary.