The Dead Songbird, the second book in the Northminster Mysteries Series by Harriet Smart, follows Major Giles Vernon and Police Inspector Felix Carswell as they investigate two unrelated crimes while sorting out their family and romantic relationships in their spare time. Author Smart does a great job interweaving the threads of the different plot lines so that everything comes together for a satisfying conclusion.
Early in the book, Vernon is assigned to investigate the threats against the well-known singer, Anna Morgan, who is in town for the high society Handel festival. She is receiving “poison pen” letters and Vernon, who finds her charismatic, puts his all into trying to find the culprit. The Major is unable to keep his work and loneliness entirely separate.
Later, a talented local choir member is found murdered at the church, and it takes the talents of both Vernon and the forensically oriented detective, Carswell, to investigate the killing.
As in the first book of the series, our detectives untangle a web of deceit while engaging in a few secrets of their own, most of them revolving around women. What I always want to make clear about the series is that it is not a mystery/romance. There are romantic relationships in the novel because flesh and blood people generally have romantic relationships, but there is no “romance” overtone to the tale.
Right from the outset, the Victorian setting is beautifully brought to life. The inclusion of many small touches of the day-to-day lives and interests of the characters gave the book its authenticity. Fortunately, the cultural components were not overexplained. As is always true of Ms. Smart’s work, aspects of Victorian society that were essential to the understanding of why certain characters would behave the way they did were subtly introduced and defined for the reader who might be unfamiliar with the mores of the times but did not run up front and center to trample on the storyline.
The Dead Songbird shines the spotlight on the sexually schizophrenic attitudes of the Victorian age. Women could be ruined socially by the most innocent behavior with a man, but at the same time, it was accepted and encouraged that upper class men would seek sexual partners outside of marriage. We are talking female partners here, mind you. Heaven forbid that you would be gay in Victorian times! That, in itself, would tuck you safely away in prison, as a nearly enlightened Major Vernon acknowledges in the course of the murder investigation while intentionally donning blinders to some of the aspects of the victim’s life.
Ms. Smart has a real gift for characterization. Her characters are complex, real, and human. While the two main characters are clearly the good guys, they are also good guys with very human shortcomings. I liked them, and I wanted them to succeed, although I sometimes wish Felix would stop being so chronically bewildered about women!
Overall, I would recommend this novel to fans of the detective novel and general historical fiction. You don’t have to have read the other book in the series in order to be up to speed in this one. I think this novel is the better of the two (see my review of The Butchered Man for my reasons), but having read and admired Harriet Smart’s non-mystery work, I am sure the series can only improve as she continues to gain experience in the form. Ms Smart’s work always passes the grammar and spelling review, and we have placed her on our (currently) short list of recommended Indie Authors because you could pick up any of her novels and have a good reading experience.
Additionally, Ms. Smart appears to be running a 99¢ sale at the time of this review. Both of the books of the Northminster Mysteries Series are on sale as well as her non-mystery Victorian era novels. So, if you are a fan of Victoriana, you can grab a whole slew of well-reasearched Victorian fiction at a fantastically low price! I now own the other three novels that I hadn’t already bought in either hard cover or Kindle format.