Publication Date: May 30, 2023
Welcome to the Benevolent Society of Ill-Mannered Ladies book tour with Berkley Publishing Group. (This blog tour post is also posted on my Tumblr book, art, & fandom blog Whimsical Dragonette.)
A high society amateur detective at the heart of Regency London uses her wits and invisibility as an ‘old maid’ to protect other women in a new and fiercely feminist historical mystery series from New York Times bestselling author Alison Goodman.
Lady Augusta Colebrook, “Gus,” is determinedly unmarried, bored by society life, and tired of being dismissed at the age of forty-two. She and her twin sister, Julia, who is grieving her dead betrothed, need a distraction. One soon presents to rescue their friend’s goddaughter, Caroline, from her violent husband.
The sisters set out to Caroline’s country estate with a plan, but their carriage is accosted by a highwayman. In the scuffle, Gus accidentally shoots and injures the ruffian, only to discover he is Lord Evan Belford, an acquaintance from their past who was charged with murder and exiled to Australia twenty years ago. What follows is a high adventure full of danger, clever improvisation, heart-racing near misses, and a little help from a revived and rather charming Lord Evan.
Back in London, Gus can’t stop thinking about her unlikely (not to mention handsome) comrade-in-arms. She is convinced Lord Evan was falsely accused of murder, and she is going to prove it. She persuades Julia to join her in a quest to help Lord Evan, and others in need—society be damned! And so begins the beguiling secret life and adventures of the Colebrook twins.
Alison Goodman is the New York Times bestselling author of Eon and Eona and The Dark Days Club series. Learn more online at www.alisongoodman.com.au/
Author photo credit: Tania Jovanovic
This was utterly delightful. I love a good regency adventure, especially with a feminist bent and a woman who defies societal norms to solve crimes and right wrongs. What I did not realize I was missing, however, was for said society-norm-defying-women to be a pair of 42-year-old spinster sisters. It was delicious.
I was immediately struck, upon starting, with how familiar the storytelling felt and how appropriate it seemed for someone setting out to solve mysteries. It reminds me of the Sherlock Holmes stories with the first-person narration of Dr. Watson. In this case we have the first-person narration of Lady Augusta Colebrook, using a similar dry and slightly amused tone. It also reminds me of the narration of the Enola Holmes novels (which are likely based on those about Sherlock).
I like that the mysteries Lady Augusta elects to solve and the crimes she seeks to address all involve women being wronged, from the initial retrieval of a packet of incriminating letters to the final adventure of rescuing the inhabitants of a brutal madhouse. Each is a step farther along the path and take her a step away from the ‘neither seen nor heard’ proper lady her brother wishes to force her to be.
Her relationship with her sister was wonderful (despite the less-than-likely entire conversations held entirely in gestures — alongside the multi-sentence exchanges those gestures are purported to represent). Lady Julia is suffering from breast cancer (a disease which killed their mother and aunt) and is much more concerned with propriety than her sister, but she gamely shows up for Gus again and again, lending her skills to their rescue attempts and occasionally threatening the villains at gunpoint. The love and trust between the sisters really shines.
The disgraced Lord Evan – escaped convict, horse thief, and charming rogue – makes a wonderful partner in crime for Gus and it quickly becomes clear that he is her perfect match. I loved seeing them work together from the beginning and how their schemes grew more complicated each time but often relied on standing together and winging it moment to moment.
The villains in this are truly villainous and the misogyny and brutality against women of all ages and statuses are hard to stomach. From brothel to madhouse, the many, many ways that men have invented to be cruel to women are on display. It is hard to read in places and each encounter stokes Gus’ (and the reader’s) righteous fury.
Things worked out just a little too easily in some of the later more complicated schemes, but never enough that it took me out of the story.
I’m glad that Julia gets a love interest by the end and doesn’t have to sink back into mourning for her deceased fiance forever, and greatly enjoyed how that happened and how Julia seems much more in control of the situation.
I can’t wait for more of Gus and Julia and Lord Evan and Kent. It’s clear by the end of this that their story is only beginning which makes me very happy what with how much I enjoyed this one.
*Thanks to NetGalley and Berkley for providing an early copy for review.
“We should have worn half boots,” I said. “I can feel every pebble through my slippers.”
“One cannot wear half boots with full dress,” Julia said firmly. “Even in circumstances of duress.”
I stifled a smile. My sister’s sense of style and occasion was always impeccable, and rather too easy to poke.
Julia glanced sideways at me. “Oh, very funny. Next you’ll be suggesting we wear unmentionables.”
“If only we could,” I said. “Breeches would be far more convenient than silk gowns.”
“How would you know?” Julia demanded. “Heavens, Gus, you haven’t actually donned Father’s clothing, have you?”
She knew I had kept some of our father’s clothes after his death; he and I had been much the same height and wiry build. By all rights, the clothes belonged to our brother on his succession to the title-as all our father’s property did-but I had taken them, anyway. A connection to him and a memento mori of sorts.
“Of course not. I am only surmising.”
Julia settled back against my arm. “To even try them would be ghoulish.” She nudged me gently and angled her sweet smile up at me. “Even so, you would look rather dashing in, say, a hussars uniform. You have the commanding height for it, and the gold trim would match your hair.”
I snorted. Julia was, as ever, being too loyal. My brown hair did not even approach gold-in fact, it now had streaks of silver-and my five foot nine inches had so far in my life proved to be more awkward than commanding. She, on the other hand, had been blessed with the Colebrook chestnut hair, as yet untouched by age, and stood at a more dainty five foot two inches.
When we were children I had once cried because we were not identical. Our father had taken me aside and told me that he found such duplications unsettling and he was well satisfied with his two mismatched girls. He had been a good father and a better man. Yet in the eyes of society, his sordid death atop a rookery whore five years ago had become the sum of him.
It had nearly tainted my sister and me, too, for I had recklessly gone to the hovel to retrieve my father-I could not bear to think of his body gawped at by the masses, or as a source of their sport. As fate would have it, I was seen at the brothel. An unmarried woman of breeding should not even know about such places, let alone debase herself by entering one and speaking to the inhabitants. I became the latest on-dit and it was only the staunch support of our most influential friends that silenced the scandalmongers and returned us to the invitation lists.
A small group of middlings-the women with shawls clasped over dimity gowns and the men in belcher neckerchiefs and sober wools-clustered around a singer at the side of the path. The woman’s plaintive ballad turned Julia’s head as we passed.
“‘The Fairy Song,'” she said. “One of Robert’s favorites.”
I quickened our pace past the memory; fate seemed to be conspiring against me.
We attracted a few glances as we walked toward the gloomy entrance to the Dark Walk, mainly from women on the arms of their spouses, their thoughts in the tight pinch of their mouths.
“Maybe we should have brought Samuel and Albert,” Julia whispered. She had seen the matronly judgment too.
“Charlotte does not want our footmen knowing her business,” I said. “Besides, we are not quivering girls in our first season. We do not need to be chaperoned all the time.”
“Do you remember the code we girls made up to warn each other about the men in our circle?” Julia asked. “The code based on these gardens.”
“Vaguely.” I searched my memory. “Let me see: a Grand Walk was a pompous bore, a Supper Box was a fortune hunter . . .”
“And a Dark Walk was the reddest of red flags,” Julia said. “Totally untrustworthy, never be alone with him. It was based on all those awful attacks that happened in the Dark Walk at the time. Do you recall?”
I did-respectable young girls pulled off the path and assaulted in the worst way.
“That was more than twenty years ago, my dear. We are women of forty-two now, well able to look after ourselves.”
“That is not what Duffy would say.”
Indeed, our brother, the Earl of Duffield, would be horrified to know we had gone to Vauxhall Gardens on our own, let alone braved the lewd reputation of the Dark Walk.
“Duffy would have us forever hunched over embroidery or taking tea with every mama who saw her daughter as the new Lady Duffield.”
“True,” Julia said, “but you are so vehement only because you know this is beyond the pale. Not to mention dangerous.”
I did not meet her eye. My sister knew me too well.
“Well, we are here, anyway,” I said, indicating the Dark Walk to our right.
Huge gnarly oaks lined either side of the path, their overhanging branches almost meeting in the middle to make a shadowy tunnel of foliage. One lamp lit the entrance but I could see no other light farther along the path. Nor any other person.
“It lives up to its name,” Julia said.
We both considered its impenetrable depths.
“Should we do as Duffy would want and turn back?” I asked.
“I’d rather wear dimity to the opera,” Julia said and pulled me onward.
I knew my sister just as well as she knew me.
Excerpted from The Benevolent Society of Ill-Mannered Ladies by Alison Goodman Copyright © 2023 by Alison Goodman. Excerpted by permission of Berkley. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.