Monday, February 20, 2012

Exaggerated Sigh

I want to issue a somewhat exasperated sigh about this book: Point of Honour, by Madeleine Robins.  It would be an ironic sigh, though, because the frustration I'm venting is that of someone who's found herself with yet another really excellent series of novels that she wants to instantly devour.  What a terrible burden a long and exciting reading list can be!

Sarah Tolerance is a fallen woman; she left her wealthy, honorable home with her brother's fencing master and never looked back.  Years later, her family has disowned her and she's on her own in London.  Unlike other ladies of her position (including many of her acquaintance), she hasn't become a prostitute--rather, she's invented a new role for herself: private investigator.

It's London in the early 1800s, with enough of the historical details altered to make political questions and danger to the nation a real source of tension in the story.  Queen Charlotte has long been the regent for mad King George, and each of their children has potential to inherit the throne.  Miss Tolerance is hired for a routine investigation--retrieve an object that was given by a wealthy man to his mistress many years ago and which may cause trouble for the family if it comes to light.  The search takes her on a tour of London's pleasure houses, high and low, and you learn a lot about the different things that happen to fallen women, the best and worst of life in a pleasure house, and how retirement treats them.

The mystery gets political, and there are personal involvements, and I won't bother with the plot of the story, because, although it was engaging and thrilling and really great, the mystery is not what makes a mystery.  A mystery is made by its atmosphere, its characters, its twists, its research.  And the clothes, the clubs, the friendships, the dangers--I want to read more of this book, right now.  I already bought the next one, Petty Treason, and will read it as soon as is reasonable.

I think one of the strongest things I can say about Point of Honour is that, in many ways, it's what I had wanted Maisie Dobbs to be.  I've read the first four or five Maisie books, and I wanted to like them all a lot more than I actually did.  They did a tremendous job of giving you a sense of the time and place, and how England was ravaged by the Great War, but the more time you spend with Maisie herself, the more you realize that she's not just stiff on the outside--she's actually a cold fish.  Even her relationship with her father is characterized by more good intentions than actual feelings.

Miss Tolerance, on the other hand, seems to be the type of person I wanted Maisie to be.  She is guarded, analytical, and bold, but she's also passionate.  She knows how to laugh, even if her life doesn't give her a lot to laugh at.  Maisie was in love once, but even when you're reading about it, you really don't believe it.  Miss Tolerance was in love once, too, and you can tell, even without details, that she was truly happy back then.

I think that, when you have a solemn or cranky character, one of the only ways to really like them is to be able to imagine them happy.  What would their perfect day look like, what makes them smile, what would their dream life be?  Miss Tolerance was happy teaching fencing on the Continent.  Knowing that about her, and being able to imagine that, completely made this book for me.

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