Friday, March 15, 2019

Book Review - Tasha Alexander's Dangerous to Know

Dangerous to Know by Tasha Alexander
Published by: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: October 26th, 2010
Format: Hardcover, 306 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Emily is still reeling from her miscarriage in Constantinople. A happy honeymoon filled with intrigue and connubial bliss destroyed by one bullet. She must take solace in the fact that she saved a young girl's life and caught a killer and not dwell on the fact that she and Colin might never be able to have children now. Ensconced in Normandy, Emily's recuperation would be far more successful if it wasn't under the gimlet eye of her mother-in-law. The feeling of being a constant disappointment to Colin and his mother pushes Emily continually outside the four walls of the house that feel like they're closing in on her. But soon even the countryside won't offer her respite. On one of her rides she comes upon a young girl brutally murdered. So brutal that when she is finally able to lead the police back to the crime scene there are murmurs that Jack the Ripper might be calling Normandy his new home. Emily gets a little bit of celebrity with the locals for finding the body, but Colin worries if perhaps it's best if Emily's attention was drawn elsewhere. She doesn't need to investigate the most dangerous of crimes and be continually putting herself in danger.

Colin is therefore a little relieved when his mother's neighbors, George and Madeline Markham, have a diversion for Emily to occupy herself with. They are great art collectors and a new Monet painting has just appeared in their fortress like home. Emily's dear friend Cecile, arriving from Paris, recognizes the piece as one just finished and stolen from Giverny. Emily correctly comes to the conclusion that her favorite thief, Sebastian Capet, has returned to spice up her life with Greek quotations left on her pillow each night. But even Sebastian, with his laissez-faire attitude, can not deny that danger lurks near at hand for Emily. The murdered girl looked eerily like Emily and once it's discovered she wasn't the Rippers typical victim, being from a well-to-do family who had placed her in an asylum, Colin is all for Emily heading straight back to England and waiting for him there. Yet Emily can not do that. Yes, she wants to obey Colin, but never before has that meant leaving his side. But could retreating be in her best interest? She just doesn't know! She can no longer trust her mental faculties after she sees the ghostly apparition of a young child. Is this her grief over her own loss or is she on the path to the asylum like the Ripper's victim?

At the end of each adventure with Lady Emily I think to myself, the next volume couldn't possibly be better, and yet each and every time Tasha proves me wrong. This volume instantly became my favorite, but who knows what will happen when I read the next book? But I don't know how it could surpass the Gothic goodness of Dangerous to Know! This book almost felt like I was reading one of Emily's favorite authors! But could Mary Elizabeth Braddon come up with such a tale that Jack the Ripper, the Norman Heathcliff, and the ghostly apparition of a child people the pages!?! If she did I'm sure she wouldn't be able to capture the meta humor that Emily arches her eyebrows at with her love/hate relationship with Normandy's version of Wuthering Heights. But what called to me most was the Jack the Ripper angle. Long before the term Murderino came into existence I was one. I would watch all the Unsolved Mysteries I could, especially if they were historical. Therefore it shouldn't be surprising that I'm a bit of a Ripperologist. I have watched or read every movie, book, comic, TV series I can on Jack the Ripper. Therefore this inclusion in Emily's investigation made by blood sing! Oh, to combine my favorite heroine with what I find the most intriguing unsolved murders of the 1800s? How did Tasha know that this would be my wish for a perfect book!?!

Though I think the inclusion of Jack the Ripper in a story wherein Emily is dealing with the loss of her child would be significant only to a Ripperologist. What could I mean you ask? Well, let me break it down. Let's look to the canonical five. The first victim, Mary Ann Nichols suffered abdominal incisions, which were seen again in the second victim Annie Chapman. But all this was leading up to what would be done to the fifth and final victim, Mary Jane Kelly. All her internal organs from her abdomen, in particular her reproductive organs, were removed, and her breasts were cut off. While there are theories, much like with the Black Dahlia, that these wounds could have been used to cover up a botched abortion, one thing is clear, Jack the Ripper was targeting women who made their money from sex and then killed them in such a way as to destroy what made them female, the ability to reproduce, only fully succeeding with Mary Jane Kelly. And as for the theories of Mary Jane Kelly's daughter... well, all this shows that by including Jack the Ripper in Dangerous to Know Tasha was adding another level of gut punch to Emily. Not only would she be traumatized by finding the poor girl in the field mutilated to such a degree, but to then have the reminder that her miscarriage basically scooped out her insides and made them as empty as Mary Jane Kelly's... chilling.

Tasha then compounds this loss with the ghostly child who leaves behind blue ribbons. So many ghost stories of the Victorian era or written about the Victorian era deal with children and mothers who have lost their children. Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White, which Emily was sure to have read, Susan Hill's The Woman in Black, a more modern classic, and even a book that Tasha recommended to me, Angelica by Arthur Phillips, these are three books just off the top of my head that I thought of while reading Dangerous to Know. I am sure there are plethora more, even Henry James's The Turn of the Screw for example. But what Tasha does is she is smart enough to create her own mythology, first the story of the young girl who fell off a cliff, then the local gossip surrounding a young child that was killed at George and Madeline Markham's house that Madeline has conflated with her own pregnancy losses. Then there's the poor victim and what she endured... but where Tasha excels is that she draws a parallel between these stories and the loss endured by Victorian women. I believe it is Cecile who comments that she doesn't think she can think of a single one of their friends who hasn't suffered a similar loss to Emily's. Childbirth and childhood were dangerous undertakings during this time and the ghost stories are almost a way to normalize the fear these women constantly felt, even if it has the effect of unsettling them at the time.

For all that I loved there's one thing that made me go WTF!?! And that was Colin's behavior. Emily married Colin because he accepted who she was and wanted to be by his side, investigating and solving crimes, and now he's trying to wrap her up in cotton wool and let nothing bad ever happen to her again. YOU KNEW WHO SHE WAS WHEN YOU MARRIED HER YOU DUMBASS! She wouldn't have married him if she knew he was going to pull a 180 and decide to become the typical Victorian husband. She had that once and while at the time what Philip offered was what she thought she wanted, she has grown since then and become this awesome hoyden. Sure, she was badly injured and their unborn child was lost, but Dear God Colin, she doesn't need you pulling this shit when she's trying to piece her life back together. And yes, I know this is a plot device, one to destabilize Emily even more as well as show what marriages were really like during the Victorian era, but that doesn't mean it stopped my blood from boiling. Though it does actually all tie back into the killer, whose motives I did not see coming, and the idea of what we are willing to do for love. Would we break the will of our loved one if we think it's in their best interest? Would we imprison them for their safety? Would we kill for them?

Yet one thing is certain, I don't think Colin's mother would approve of his coddling of Emily. Madame Hargreaves is who I think Emily will evolve into. Yes, it's trite to say that boys marry women who remind them of their mothers, but going beyond that, Colin believes in the rights and equality of women, so it would make sense that he would find a woman he viewed as his equal to marry. At first I, like Emily, was wary of her mother-in-law, but I grew to really appreciate her, so much so that she better be returning in a later book! I love the little insights into the mind of Mrs. Hargreaves with her journal entries, a device Tasha has used from the first book in this series starting with Philip's journal and later being letters from Emily's various friends, that give us insight that Emily herself doesn't have that acts as a catalyst to the plot. What tickles me is that Mrs. Hargreaves is so hard on Emily, she just doesn't see what Colin does. But we, as readers, see that all her criticisms are because Emily has turned inward and is recovering and that the "real" Emily would perfectly match her mother-in-laws' expectations. By the end of the book they have come to an understanding, but I can't wait to meet them again now that they are on equal footing. The government of England better send out a warning, because these women want the right to vote! Long live strong women!


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