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Monday, September 12, 2011

Dark Road to Darjeeling, by Deanna Raybourn ($14.95)(c2010)

I'd say that Deanna Raybourn's Julia March/Grey/Brisbane series is like macaroni and cheese, like bread pudding or some other comfort food, but that makes it sound too bland. Maybe it's more like khichdi-kadhi -- an Indian comfort food -- sprinkled with curry. Exotic and a little spicy.

Lady Julia Grey has married the man of her dreams, the dark and dashing Brisbane. While still on their honeymoon, two of her nine siblings, Portia and Plum, intrude and demand that Julia and Brisbane accompany them to India.

Jane, Portia's former lover, suddenly married Freddy Cavendish, an heir to a tea estate. They decamped England to his family home near Darjeeling. Now Jane has been widowed and is expecting a baby. Further, she suspects that her husband was murdered. Since Brisbane is a professional inquiry agent (private detective to us 21st-centurians), his help especially is requested.

It is 1889, the British are still lords and overseers in many areas of India. The British social strata are as complex and rigid as the Indian caste system. Add the complicated personal lives of the March family to the mix, and the result is an intriguing and beguiling story set against a dramatic and lush background.

After lurching their way to Jane's plantation, the Marches discover that some of their distant relatives are also ensconced in the small edenic valley. They shared an unsettling adventure with cousins Emma and Lucy, and are not overly excited to re-make their acquaintance. Other British inhabitants of the valley include the Pennyfeathers (the passive Reverend P., his eccentric and artistic wife, and their uninhibited and eccentric children), an alcoholic doctor who is grieving the death of his wife, killed by a marauding tiger, and a mysterious older gentleman, nicknamed "The White Rajah," who has taken over the monastery on the hill. Although the valley may seem like Eden, there are mysteries and dramas in each household. The question is: What do any of them have to do with Freddy's death?

This could be solely an entertaining romance, but Raybourn sidesteps stereotypes and veers off the neat-and-tidy story path. In one of the more moving and satisfying scenes, Portia confronts Julia about her audacity in thinking she could be Brisbane's equal in the art of investigation, which is what Julia yearns to be. Up until the death of her first husband, Julia was a snooty, imperious, and dissatisfied aristocratic wife. Brisbane, on the other hand, although he is now rich and has an estate, grew up rough and learned to rely on his wits and ingenuity. He has paid a dear price for his knowledge.

Portia later further lectures Julia, the narrator:

'My dearest, we have every possible advantage of birth and wealth in this modern age. The blood of kings flows in our veins and our father's skill with money makes Croesus look like a beggar man. Our every whim has been attended to all of our lives by a loving family and a staff paid to treat us as if we were minor deities.' 
'We are not so bad as all that,' I protested weakly. 
'Of course we are. But we do try to think of others, and that is what saves us from being deplorable and weak of character.'

Raybourn also effortlessly places her readers in a different time and place. Her prose isn't forced. There aren't references, wink-wink, of what is to come in the future. And the story, the heart of the matter, satisfyingly attaches itself to us.

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