Quercus, 2009. ISBN 978-1-84724-788-9. 296 pages. Review copy kindly supplied by publisher.
The Duke's Agent is a historical mystery set in Northumberland in 1811. All the major characters are fictional.
Captain Frederick Raif Jarrett, on medical leave from the British Army, takes on the role of land agent to his relative, the Duke of Penrith. Sent to the Northumberland town of Woolbridge to conduct an audit of the Duke's properties in the area after the unexpected death of the previous agent, Jarrett soon finds evidence of widespread embezzlement and corruption. Events take a sinister turn when a local beauty is found dead in mysterious circumstances and Jarrett becomes the prime suspect for her murder. It seems his investigations have earned him a powerful enemy - but who, and why?
The Duke's Agent is a historical mystery with at least two sub-plots, cleverly intertwined. The first, with which the narrative opens, centres on the strange circumstances surrounding the death of the Duke's previous agent. Who cut the throat of the dead man's dog? Who ransacked his study, and what were they looking for? The second appears about a third of the way into the book, and centres on the death of Sally Grundy, "Black-Eyed Sal", a beautiful local laundry maid who was recently jilted by a local boy and was apparently being courted by a mysterious gentleman friend. How did Sal come by her death? Who moved her body afterwards and why? Who is the unknown gentleman friend and what was his business with Sal? And why are the locals - or some of them, at least - so keen to finger Jarrett for her murder? Both mysteries are gradually unravelled as the plot unfolds, revealing layers of subtle connections and local rivalries. I spotted the villain early on, but that was on the basis of character and role in the narrative, not by solving the mysteries.
The pace is leisurely, even slow, to start with, as the local countryside and the town of Woolbridge are described and the cast introduced. Jarrett is new to the area and a talented painter, so the reader sees both landscape and people through his keen artist's eye. After Sal's death the pace steps up a gear, with an effective courtroom scene and a greater urgency to Jarrett's investigations. The leisurely pace allows time to develop not only a varied cast of characters - from poacher and innkeeper to the local gentry - but also the relationships and rivalries between them, all told in stylish prose.
Although the immediate mystery is wrapped up at the end - partly through the villain's desire to demonstrate his own cleverness by filling in the details that the hero has not quite worked out for himself - there is a larger intrigue still to be resolved, which clearly offers scope for a sequel (or several). Similarly, Jarrett's tentative relationship with Miss Henrietta Lonsdale, a young lady of impeccable manners, calm good sense, formidable reserve and remarkably attractive grey eyes, looks as if it has scope for further development.
Stylish historical mystery with well-defined characters and a clear sense
of time and place, set in Northumberland in the early nineteenth century.