Summary (courtesy of GoodReads): In the winter of 1876, the beautiful young madam India Black is occupied with her usual tasks - keeping her tarts in line, avoiding the police, and tolerating the clergyman bent on converting her girls. But when Sir Archibald Latham of the War Office dies from a heart attack while visiting her brothel, India is unexpectedly thrust into a deadly game between Russian and British agents who are seeking the military secrets Latham carried. French, the handsome British spy, discovers India disposing of Latham's body, and blackmails her into recovering the missing documents. Their quest takes them from the Russian embassy to Claridge's Hotel, from London to the English coast, all the while chasing the Russian agents who are intent on spiriting the stolen documents out of England. But it is their own tempestuous relationship they will have to weather as India and French attempt to resist the mutual attraction between them - an attraction that can prove as deadly as the conspiracy entangling them...
And here's what I thought: I had read a review of this book on Unabridged Chick, and was completely intrigued by her one-sentence summary: "London madam is wrangled into spying on Russians on behalf of the Empire, with help from street urchin and government agent." I have read a fair amount about the Victorian era (both in fiction and non-fiction... and everything Anne Perry has written, as well), and thought this sounded like a good story. I had planned on finding the book at the library, but to my surprise, received a very nice email from the author, herself, asking if I'd like to review the book. Would I? Okay. Be like that. Twist my arm and make me read a good book. !!
And this was a really good book. It's the perfect mix of a great main character, interesting supporting characters, adventure, intrigue, and historical setting -- combined with a wonderfully descriptive writing style and fast pace. Intrigued yet? Let's start with India --- she's not your average streetwalker, plying her trade to just anyone. No, she's a madam of a fine establishment (think the Everleigh Sisters of Chicago) --- she's a businesswoman with a good head on her shoulders, and a sharp wit, as well. India is the one who takes us through the story, and she's an interesting narrator, full of witty (and wry) observations about the situation at hand. When a client perishes at the brothel, she doesn't lose her composure; she calmly comes up with a plan. And it's all supposed to be a simple job of finding someone to dispose of the body..... until it all gets very complicated, very quickly.
What happens next is pretty clear from the summary above --- the dead client wasn't your average man; there are now missing papers, which cause quite a problem, as it turns out. This makes for an intriguing story, as India's not sure who she can really trust, and she doesn't have much say in her participation in retrieving the papers. The supporting characters of French (British spy) and Vincent (street urchin and jack-of-many-trades) not only add to the story as a whole, but also give insight into India's character, as well (as they should). It's an interesting triangle between the three of them, and it was interesting how the relationships developed throughout the book. India's narrative voice colors everything, of course --- but she's an enjoyable character. Example: "It is amazing what a woman can do if only she ignores what men tell her she can't." (p. 26). Or how about -- "I extracted myself from her grasp, no small feat as Rowena had the grip of an octopus in heat." (p. 91). I liked her. She obviously sees things with a wry sense of humor, no doubt influenced by her life's experiences.
I really appreciated the historical details in this book, as well. Carol Carr has obviously done her research, capturing not only the flavor of the Victorian era, both socially and politically, but putting in real details, as well. For example, her portrayal of Benjamin Disraeli in this story seems accurate with what I had read about him, and the politics of England and Russia also seemed accurate. She adds in smaller details that also lend richness to the story -- like the revolver that India carries with her. It's a Webley Bulldog. I looked it up, and it's quite the gun -- completely practical (and appropriate for the time period). Details such as this gave the story a nice depth. I sometimes get a bit frustrated when a book set in the Victorian era seems to focus only on the clothing, and some social customs --- this book had a very authentic feel it.
This was an interesting, lively read, with a terrific main character (and some great supporting characters, as well). The book is coming out in January, 2011 --- and if you'd like to know more about Carol Carr and the book, she's got a great website here. And stay tuned --- Ms. Carr has agreed to let me interview her, and give away a copy of the book!!
First sentences:"My name is India Black. I am a whore. If those words made you blush, if your hand fluttered to your cheek or you harrumphed disapprovingly into your beard, then you should return this volume to the shelf, cast a cold glance at the proprietor as you leave, and hasten home feeling proper and virtuous." Thoughts on the cover: Absolutely beautiful and eye-catching. Gives a good impression of the setting of the book, and a nice portrait of India, herself (definitely in line with the description of the character).
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