Thursday, January 3, 2019

Book Review 2018 #9 - Tasha Alexander's A Crimson Warning

A Crimson Warning by Tasha Alexander
Published by: Minotaur
Publication Date: October 25th, 2011
Format: Hardcover, 336 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

As Emily dances a man burns. How could she have thought the ballroom she was in was stuffy once she learns of the fate of Mr. Dillman? The heat as he was burned alive chained to his office window is horrible to contemplate, yet Emily and Colin must, as Colin has been sent in by the crown to investigate. But it's information they glean from Mr. Dillman's fiance, Cordelia Dalton, that shines a light on the investigation and shows a disturbing pattern. The day of Mr. Dillman's death the Sanders household was defiled with red paint and it was revealed at the ball that their daughter, Polly, was the illegitimate offspring of Mr. Sanders and a maid. Polly's betrothal to Thomas Lacey was ended and any chance she had of a good marriage went up in smoke. Cordelia informs Emily and Colin that Mr. Dillman's house was similarly vandalized the week before. What could Mr. Dillman's secret have been? If the revelation of Polly's parentage is anything to go by whomever is leaving these threatening and very public warnings seeks to out the deepest and darkest of secrets of the ton and Mr. Dillman's secret might just have followed him to the grave.

Soon more homes are vandalized and what seemed at first mildly titillating and a field day for gossips has the ton gripped in terror. How each family approaches their secret shame depends on how bad their crime. Some wait with baited breath, some flee England, some openly expose their own secrets, and some choose to take their secrets to the grave. Emily and Colin can see no connection between the victims aside from the fact that they had something to hide, which could apply to anyone they know, from the highest ranking individuals to their dearest friends. Soon their investigation narrows on a few individuals; Mr. Foster, a politician being groomed for Prime Minister, his best friend and policy shaper Mr. Barnes, who could never rise to power on his own being half West Indian, Mrs. Winifred Harris, an inveterate busybody, and the outlandish Lady Glover, whom the vandal appears to be in contact with when she's not taking her zebras for a stroll in the park. But if this individual wants to cause as much damage to as many individuals as possible why are they targeting Cordelia Dalton, someone peripheral to the first victim? When she goes missing it becomes clear Mr. Dillman is more important than the other victims. He might just be the key to catching this odious criminal and stopping their stranglehold on the city.

A Crimson Warning takes place about a year after Emily and Colin's last adventure in France and we get to see them settled into their new life in London. While I initially thought I was being mildly cheated by not getting to see Emily and Colin merge their households and their staff with all the ensuing chaos, I realized that I should never question Tasha because she knows what's right for her characters. The relative calm of the Hargreaves household is needed to serve as a counterpoint to the mania that is gripping the town. If they had a household in disarray while the town was balancing on a knife's edge the book would have ended up too frenetic. You need moments of calm, especially in a murder mystery, where you can gather your thoughts and let your heart stop racing with a nice cup of tea or glass of port. I think this is why I don't like action films, they don't understand the need for proper pacing. But then again, in an action film they rarely have a plot and if you were given a moments respite you might notice this. Whereas Tasha's writing is perfectly plotted, with just the right hints, red herrings, and reveals that you are enthralled until the very last page.

But what made me breathe the biggest sigh of relief? Because a year has passed since Colin was a total controlling dick in France, justifiable in his mind not mine, Emily and him have worked out their respective rolls in their marriage and in their investigations, smoothing over the bumps from his being reactionary and overprotective. Colin isn't shutting Emily out and Emily in turn isn't sneaking around behind his back trying to help while still trying to be a dutiful wife. They know where their strengths lie and know that they will ask for the others help when it is needed. When Colin flits away into the night to follow a new lead he has faith that Emily knows he doesn't need him at the moment, but the second he does he will call her into action. While Emily knows he won't interfere with her own line of inquiry and will even be there to help should she need it. They are in balance and oh how this made me happy. But not nearly as happy as when Emily stopped by Mr. Dillman's and the butler let her in to search the victim's possessions. Emily thought he let her in because she was so convincing in her justifications to him, but really it's because the butler had heard of the successful partnership of her and her husband. They have a reputation! A good one! This made Emily understandably flattered and made my heart sing that her reputation now proceeds her!

While Emily is shocked to discover that she is now known for something more than being a little eccentric, A Crimson Warning is fascinating in that it's all about discovery. What do the people you know everyday have to conceal. Because it's made quite clear that when the scarlet mark appears on their door they know exactly to what secret it pertains. And most of the secrets are quite scandalous. Therefore it is quite surprising that of all Emily's friends the one most worried about finding their doorstep covered in paint is Ivy! Ivy has a secret! This really proves that you never really know someone. Because from the outset Ivy has always been depicted as the perfect Victorian bride. A perfect wife supporting her husband and a perfect mother now that she was blessed with a daughter. Of course Emily is always trying to corrupt her with sensational literature and port, but to all outward appearances Ivy is just perfectly normal. Though in a London filled with secrets normal apparently means she must have a secret as well. The way Tasha draws out the reveal with Ivy's journal entries is deliciously suspenseful. Will we learn Ivy's secrets from her own lips or from a red slash on her door? I'm obviously not going to spoil it, other than to say it's perfect.

Now though I need to address a serious question I have to raise. Is it possible to marry a fictional character who isn't just fictional but also dead? I'm talking about my complete adoration of Mr. Dillman. That fiance of his, Cordelia Dalton, sure lucked out in locking that one down, that is until he was murdered of course. Why my love of Mr. Dillman? Well, beyond the fact he is a good, kind man who takes care of his workers and has a social conscience, he is also bookish and encourages Cordelia to read literature that even Emily thinks is a little scandalous and therefore wants to read immediately! But more than that, he creates these amazing scavenger hunts for Cordelia that has her searching all over museums to find the right object that then ties into another stage of the hunt that ends in going through Mr. Dalton's library where Mr. Dillman has secreted a surprise for his fiance. I mean, my heart literally melted. I love scavenger hunts and literature, if someone cared about me this much to stage this amazing game, not once but often? That is the man for me ladies and gentlemen! The fact that this game ties into the overall plot just shows how much I love and adore Tasha's series. She creates memorable characters we love and care for but who also serve a purpose dramatically.

One aspect of Tasha's writing that is mentioned again and again in the pull quotes used for the back of her books is that Lady Emily has a sparkling wit and that humor imbues all her adventures. I'm not going to disagree with this statement. In fact I think all books need humor in order to work. Not just because I love me a little snark, but because you get a better sense of someone's personality by laughing with them. A Crimson Warning seems to me to notch up the humor a bit than previous installments. Again I think this is a balancing act that Tasha has carefully staged. Emily's life is calm while Rome burns, and the jokes become more prevalent the bleaker the situation Emily finds herself in. This installment we see even more of the horror of the lower classes in London and the humor is a nice way to combat the stark reality of the situations that Emily finds herself in. The humor never diminishes the suffering she sees, but it's a nice counterpoint to the suffering and helps to further form her social conscience with her wanting to do more and fight for women's suffrage with the Women's Liberal Federation. But all that analysis aside, nothing has made me laugh heartier recently than Emily's observations on Lady Glover and her zebras to Ivy: "Zebras, Ivy. Zebras," I said. "Why are we not better acquainted with this woman?"


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