In the era of the Golden Age of Radio, Detective Noir, McCarthyism, Korean Conflict, dark streets of Hells Kitchen, pre-communist Cuba, and NYC nightclubs like The Stork Club and the Copacabana, this creative and talented author sets her Jane Austen Meets Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction.
I grew up on old-time radio broadcasts and black and white detective shows so this was a treat not to be missed. And sister (or brother, EO, here), let me tell you, this nostalgic visit to the past did not disappoint.
The story opens with lady dick, Elizabeth Bennet, between cases of tailing suspected cheats, skips, and thieves, pursuing answers to a cold case that is eating at her. Her best friend, Mary King, has been missing for months and Eli has strong suspicions that the man, George Wickham, who seduced every woman in the neighborhood, including Eli and her gorgeous older sister before absconding with her dad’s cash drawer, seduced Mary and then killed her. Eli started her detection agency because she was determined to track down Slick Wick and maybe leave enough of him for justice to have her day.
Wickham has been lying low for months, but finally Eli gets word through one of her reliable sources that he’s back and has a dame on his arm that looks much like her sister, Lydia. Eli tracks him to a strip club and there encounters an uptown cream puff man who sits in the shadows and also seems to be interested in Wickham’s shady activities. Darcy is a distraction and maybe a dangerous one because Eli isn’t sure how he is connected to her prey.
Darcy is floored by the appearance of the seductive bombshell that he spots right away at the club. Wickham has threatened blackmail over something from Darcy’s past that will submarine his political chances in his run for the Senate and has also been nosing around Darcy’s younger innocent sister now that Georgiana controls her trust fund. Not going to happen. Darcy will get enough on Wickham to turn him over to the Navy for that long awaited court-martial. But what about the gorgeous vixen who spies on Wickham and gets close enough to Wickham’s exchange with the Russian? Worth the pursuit for sure, but the cool femme fatale doesn’t get to have his secrets.
Alright, so this was one that was pure and delicious sinfully sweet pleasure. I felt I was there- there in a shadowy, gritty NYC lower east side world with Eli and Darcy pursuing an ugly monster that seduces and preys on vulnerable, innocent women. The world is full of details from scene, to fashion, to background historical events, to dialogue, rhythm and tone. Each page is full of nostalgia so that as the reader, it felt like I was reading a reproduction of the real thing (this being noir fiction), but a really good one considering could only channel Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
Elizabeth shares the narration with Darcy, her thoughts echoing old hard-boiled detective fiction inner monologue. She is a woman in a man’s world and she has the guts and moxie to pull it off. She is confident in her abilities and skills and not afraid to use sexual seduction as her biggest tool around the big sharks swimming around her. I loved that she had a night club owner and a tired, jaded, but honest cop in her corner (cop being a certain Christopher Brandon). She lives on her own in a seedy apartment and office in a rough part of town, but growing up with two alcoholics and indifferent siblings fighting for their own ticket out of their poor neighborhood taught her how to survive.
Darcy came from privilege though his father was morally bankrupt and his mother a bored socialite who felt trapped by the life and got out. Darcy escaped the stifling world of NY high society when he joined the Navy, but bad choices led him to return home calmer and wiser so he could take up the reins on the family fortune and responsibility of his much younger sister, when his dad passed. He wants to make a difference and be an honest politician and ethical businessman unlike his own father, but first he needs to deal with a blight on his past that just won’t go away. I thought it was interesting to put Darcy in the Navy with Slick Wick his former CO and Wentworth as Darcy’s old Navy friend while Charlie is his best friend growing up.
The two are a wary, reluctant team at first. Things heated up fast. Like reader might want to have a cold drink handy to cool down the sizzle coming off those pages. Feelings came into it fast, but conflict allows for the feelings to develop into respect and understanding as they work together. I found it done well that both struggled against traditional man/woman roles and the need to trust another with their pasts and vulnerable sides, but learned to accept, understand, and compromise- and yes, even apologize- when needed.
The murder mystery came late in the story after things built up to it, but it was only one element in the bigger suspense plot. There were a few suspects. It’s not meant to be too challenging and the reader can enjoy figuring it out. The players in the murder mystery were a fun bevy of likely suspects because of the victim. And I was pleased to see how Elizabeth fared as a detective in action.
Now, on the family side of things. Darcy’s tension with his sister over her being old enough to be trusted and him having to do that are tame compared to the dysfunction in ye olde Bennet homestead. The parents are disinterested alcoholics that expect Eli and the others to fend for themselves and send home the paycheck to dear old mom and dad. The oldest sister, Jane, is a vapid beauty and social climber who married for money (to Darcy’s best bud, Charlie), the middle sister is a nun, the fourth sister is a starving artist in Europe (that Eli also helps enable), and the fifth is wild, hellcat Lydia who surprisingly turns out to be the most like Elizabeth. Eli is worried to bring Darcy home to the folks and rightly so, but he might surprise her and them.
So, in the end, this one was the Cat’s Meow for me and I was tempted to flip back to the beginning and go right back into it or start digging through my Old Time Radio series on CD for a night of Phillip Marlowe, Boston Blackie, The Shadow, Charlie Chan, or Philo Vance. This one is for those who like a sizzling hot old time Noir Romantic Suspense.
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