If my voracious reading of R L LaFevers’ Theodosia books is any indication, it seems that I have quite a thing for reading about go-getter female sleuths in ye olde times. Like the Theodosia series, Karen Wallace’s Lady Violet Winters books feature an upwardly mobile, precious lass for whom no mystery is too great, and who has no qualms about throwing herself into the midst of the most nefariously plotted coup. However, where Theodosia leans heavily on Egyptian mythology and boasts no few fantastical elements, the Lady Violet Winter series has its feet firmly rooted in reality–or as least as much as a book about an amateur detective teen in the early 1900s can be.
The book opens at a New York reception dinner, which as the well-bred English young lady she is, Violet describes in quite hilarious style–she is, she tells us, not being used to such wanton displays of wealth and pomp. But as it turns out, it’s not just the affair itself that’s over the top: there’s plenty going on behind the scenes that warrants a second glance. Why, for example, is the up-and-coming painter Louis Colbolt speaking so intimately with the man with the eerie yellow eyes?
Violet’s questions only escalate when Louis goes missing, and her investigations seem to point to the criminal underworld of New York–with no little involvement from some of the city’s finest socialites. With her best friend Garth in tow, some help from an Irish street urchin called Mickey, and a bit of hindrance from a pet monkey who’s taken a shine to Violet’s mother’s faberge eggs, Violet sets to work figuring out the circumstances behind Louis’s disappearance and what, exactly, the man with the tiger eyes is up to with all of those blank pieces of paper and a master forger at hand…
As is no doubt evident from this summary, The Man with the Tiger Eyes is a good deal of fun, and Wallace spares nothing in throwing her characters in the deep end. Family politics, dodgy underworld dealings and hilarious comparisons of the differences in upper crust living between the US and Britain abound, making for a read that could be summed up quite simply as “jaunty”. Violet and her motley posse of snobs and misfits make for some amusing farcical situations, although unfortunately both she and Garth feel a little flat on the page–although the aforementioned Theodosia can be a right brat, her particular brand of gumption is helpful in ensuring that the narrative muscles along. The machinations that Wallace employs to ensure that the adults are out of the way are also quite clever, and one can’t help but feel that in this era a wealthy young lass makes the perfect MG protagonist: Violet’s mother is constantly off attending soirees and other social events, and her governess appears to be equally as distracted.
There were a couple of relationships that felt a little vague to me, these being that between Violet and her father, and that between Violet and her best friend Garth, but I should note that this book is the second in a series, and therefore I am venturing into the story a tad in media res. That aside, Wallace generally does a good job of slipping in the requisite backstory in a fairly seamless manner, and though I’m sure it couldn’t hurt, I don’t feel that it’s necessary first to read the first in the series (The Secret of the Crocodiles) if you’re unable to find a copy.
In all, I quite enjoyed this one, although I did feel that it was a tad conservative in exploiting its setting and characters to the best of their ability. There are a handful of semi-humorous scenes that I felt could have been amped up to better effect; alternatively, I wouldn’t have minded seeing more humour throughout given the fairly camp, whimsical set-up we’re given. The plot itself is nothing earth-shattering in terms of originality and wit, but does move along quickly and tidily, making for a solid little read.
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