In the second book in Carol K. Carr’s Madam of Espionage series, the author has her heroine, India Black, spend Christmas in the Scottish highlands protecting Queen Victoria from a death threat. But don’t expect this mystery to have the lavish, sumptuous feeling of nobility enjoying a royal retreat that one might expect from this setting. This is a historical like no other!
Morgan: Forget pomp and circumstance, there is absolutely nothing glamorous about the characters in India Black and the Widow of Windsor.
Whitney: Exactly. We see them in all their smelly, dirty, sneezy glory.
Morgan: And the story’s heroine, India, is a culprit of the “uglification” of the era. From calling Queen Victoria, Vicky, to insulting Prime Minister Disraeli’s clothing, India takes these historical figures, so often put on a pedestal, down a few (hundred) notches.
Whitney: And it’s not like India is one of their own, either. She’s the madam of a London brothel!
Morgan: I found it quite interesting that India is so frank to the readers. She lets us know about her profession right away. In fact, she introduces herself by saying, “I am the abbess of Lotus House in St. Alban’s Street”. Since we are seeing a trend of featuring mistresses in historical romances, why not add a madam of a brothel into the mix?
Whitney: Although we don’t actually see India in the role of “abbess” for more than a moment or two. It seems that lately India has been spending her time running around Europe as an amateur sleuth, in service to her country.
Morgan: Well, maybe not exactly for her country. India doesn’t take on these cases to be noble or anything. The truth is, she is bored at the brothel, so when the chance comes for her to take on some undercover work and spy on the royal entourage, India jumps at it.
Whitney: Teehee, “undercover”, teehee. The idea takes on a whole new meaning for her! Because she was under covers, and now she’s undercover ...
Morgan: Which is part of the reason she’s so willing to take on the job. She says,
“It amused me to cavort among the most powerful men in the land, men who wouldn’t dare acknowledge me if they met me on the street but who weren’t too proud to rely on a whore to help them out of a jam now and then.”
Whitney: So recently India has been keeping busy traversing the continent with her very proper gentleman friend named French, who is her very sidekick — or is she his sidekick?
Morgan: I definitely saw French in the role as the boss. He is the one working directly for the Prime Minister to keep the English government running smoothly.
Whitney: Either way, they have an interesting relationship. French doesn’t offer any personal information about himself. He’s just there to get the job done (and try to ensure India’s good behavior — a difficult task!).
Morgan: But you can tell that French cares for India. He takes a lot of time trying to teach her to defend herself.
Whitney: And he risks life and limb to try to keep her alive.
Morgan: Even though India feels she has enough skill to do this on her own.
“I learned the art of self-defense at L’Ecole d’Boulevards d’London. ‘Needs must’ is the school motto. And if you don’t know how to wallop a gent in the bollocks, you can’t graduate.”
Whitney: Such tough talk for a woman living in the age of good manners and polite behavior.
Morgan: I really like that the author created characters with a little bit of sass. I mean, even though this is the late 1800s, people are people wherever you go. It just makes sense that cursing, drinking and disrespecting your superiors would have taken place back then as much as it does today.
Whitney: I feel like this is just one more way that Carol K. Carr truly brought her characters to life. They are not pretty, simple or flat. Instead her characters all feel like you can reach out and touch them. Not to mention the way that she carefully details their world.
Morgan: I don’t even want to think of how much time must have gone into figuring out the furnishings, the clothing and manners of these people.
Whitney: And then on top of that, Carr weaves a very convincing mystery throughout the tale.
Morgan: Yes, with potential assassins everywhere India turns, it is quite a challenge to weed through the suspects and discover the true identity of the person threatening the queen.
Whitney: And adding yet another layer to the story are these little gems of humor you wouldn’t expect.
Morgan: Like when India is looking through the trash for clues and hopes she might stumble across the killer’s to-do list:
1. Make sure gun is loaded (or knife sharpened, as the case may be).
2. Buy railway ticket.
3. Sign last will and testament.
4. Pack sandwiches.
Whitney: And when the dotty Dowager Marchioness of Tullibardine shows up and thinks that everything she can get her hands on is her snuff, she ends up snorting sugar, pepper — I think even talcum powder at one point — if it’s near her hands, it’s up her nose!
Morgan: Ah, yes. The marchioness. India’s cover story to get herself into the queen’s castle is to act as Lady Tullibardine’s maid.
Whitney: I’ll admit it; you know how much I love beautiful dresses and fantastic parties, so I thought that I wouldn’t really enjoy the story when I realized that India would be impersonating a servant. But it really worked out well for me.
Morgan: It’s true; it’s a lot easier to spy on someone as a maid. No one looks at them twice.
Whitney: Unless it is for something nefarious, like the prince stealing kisses (and sometimes more) from a servant!
Morgan: I like that we get to meet everyone “below stairs” and seeing all of the people that make the queen’s vacation house run smoothly is really interesting.
Whitney: While I really enjoyed getting to know how the other half lived, I don’t think India quite fits in with this group. She just can’t seem to pull off pretending to be a soft-spoken companion.
Morgan: You’re right; she is never able to hold her tongue for long.
Whitney: And with the audience, she never does!
Morgan: Instead she “breaks the fourth wall” and constantly speaks to readers — at one point she even directly says she is writing this down in a memoir in order to find a publisher and sell it to us.
Whitney: And she’s certainly not shy about sharing her thoughts about fellow authors, like the ones she reads the marchioness. India finds fault with everything — Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, even the Bible.
Morgan: She’s an outspoken woman, and we certainly don’t know anyone like that.
Whitney: Okay, okay, enough with the sarcasm. I think that India is a historical woman who readers that like urban fantasy’s no-nonsense heroines will really appreciate.
Let us know what you think about India Black and the Widow of Windsor in the commenst below. And you can pick up your own copy of Razor's Edge in order to read along with us for next week's Dish!