The Tender Herb (Murray of Letho 6) by Lexie Conyngham

the tender herb 2Days of Empire…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Charles Murray of Letho is on an extended visit to Italy when his manservant Robbins turns up unexpectedly. Robbins has received a letter from Mary, Murray’s former maid, asking for advice. Mary’s husband has been arrested for murder in Delhi, where his regiment is based, and Mary is convinced of his innocence. When Robbins asks for permission to go to Delhi to help out, Murray decides that he will go along too – partly out of loyalty to Mary, and partly because he is trying to escape from an enthusiastic mother, determined to trap him into marrying her rather dull daughter.

Have you ever had the experience of loving a book all the way through to the last few pages and then suddenly coming upon an ending that changes your entire opinion? I’ve enjoyed all of the Murray of Letho books. Set in early 19th century Scotland, each one has incorporated a decent murder mystery into an excellent account of an aspect of post-Enlightenment society, well researched and well written. This one is set primarily in India, but the India of Empire, so another important aspect of Scottish life at that time, when so many Scots were posted out there as either government officials or soldiers.

As always, Conyngham wears her research lightly – the descriptions of the journey to and then across India are vivid and ring true, but don’t overwhelm the quality of the characterisation, which is perhaps her main strength. The plots are sometimes the weaker part of the books and again that’s the case here – there’s a lot of bumbling around getting nowhere fast, followed by an unnaturally quick denouement. But it’s still strong enough to hold the book together and to give plenty of room for Conyngham to allow her characters to explore this new and rather exotic environment on behalf of the reader. We get a real feel for the difficulties of this huge journey – a long sea voyage followed by weeks of traversing the country on elephant-back with the huge entourage of native servants that was the norm for wealthy travellers in India. And the depiction of Delhi society, as seen through the eyes of the British there, is both interesting and believable.

Red Fort Palace in Delhi - at the time of the book, home to the British Resident.
Red Fort Palace in Delhi – at the time of the book, home to the British Resident.

The books fall between ‘cosy’ and ‘gritty’ – just where I like crime fiction, in fact. The cosier element is around the recurring characters, whom we’ve got to know and care about over the previous books – particularly Murray himself, of course, who’s an intelligent and attractive lead. There’s always a good deal of humour in the books which makes them a particularly enjoyable read, and in this one there’s a lovely romantic sub-plot, as Murray finally meets a young woman who may be his match in every way. The grittier side comes from the murder plot – in this case, the knifing of a clergyman outside the barracks. But it appears that the clergyman, along with many of the other characters, may have had secrets to hide, and there may have been more than one motive for his murder.

So, great descriptions, excellent characterisation, a nice little bit of romance, and a strong enough plot – it was all going so well and heading straight for 5 stars. But – and I accept this is a matter of personal opinion only and annoying since I can’t explain without spoilers – I hated the way it ended, to the extent that I’ve been left unsure as to whether I want to continue with the series now, and that has to be a serious mark against it. All I can say is that everything up to that point had led me to believe it was going to finish one way, which I would have found satisfactory, and then at the last moment the whole thing was turned on its head, and I found the eventual outcome neither desirable nor credible. 4 stars, then, but still with a strong recommendation to read the series, preferably in order from the beginning. And yes, despite my cryptic remarks over the ending of this one, and with just a little hesitation, I’d still recommend it too.

Book 11
Book 11

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50 thoughts on “The Tender Herb (Murray of Letho 6) by Lexie Conyngham

  1. Interesting! How frustrating though, to get through to an ending that spoils it. I’m trying to think if that ever happened to me – I know a lot of people didn’t like Atonement for that reason.

    • I couldn’t think of another one that so dramatically changed my opinion. It wasn’t just the story – it changed the whole tone somehow. Yes, I must admit I preferred the ending of Atonement in the film to the book, mainly because of Vanessa Redgrave’s brilliant performance.

  2. I like the sound of this! I’ll just stop reading before I get to the end bit. Also – I love the phrase ‘man-servant’. I would really like one of those, I am thinking.

  3. Oddly enough, your “cryptic remarks about the ending” may drive more curious readers to the book than your encomium on the parts you like. It certainly has me intrigued. (And I’m glad you’ve gotten in a “long sea voyage” in preparation for your slog through Moby Dick 🙂 )

    • Haha! I know! A review like that would drive me insane to know. But I couldn’t think of any way to explain the loss of a star without leaving a tantalising mystery… 😉

      (I’ve also read two books in the last couple of weeks, each of which involves killing whales… I feel fate is trying to tell me something… )

  4. Oh, I know just what you mean, FictionFan! I’ve read books like that, too, where I was excited about the plot, the characters, the whole thing – and then badly let down at the end. It’s so frustrating, especially when one’s invested a lot of time and effort into a novel or series. If you do decide to carry on with the series, I hope the next one’s better.

    • And it was literally the last couple of chapters – I went from smiling to ‘What?!?’ in nano-seconds! And it’s one of those things that will have an on-going impact on the rest of the series… grrr! However, I’m hoping my sister might have read the next one (she’s a big fan of this series too) and be able to set my mind at rest…

      • Well, it depends what you mean by “set your mind at rest” ! Like you, I was becroggled by the end of Herbs, but it didn’t put me off reading the next one. The issue causing us difficulty is in no way resolved, but it is ….um….mediated by distance. so go for it, I say, I’m sure you will enjoy it. (And not a spoiler in the place!)

  5. Nothing to do with this book, on which I can’t comment – but, thanks for the ‘what I’m currently reading’ indications – Losing Israel looked interesting and I’ve put my request in. So – I hope it IS, and if so, that I get approval. (Go on, tell me it’s impossible and I will deeply regret a successful request. Alternatively, tell me it’s FAR better than sliced bread moments before I get rejected)

    • I was actually just thinking yesterday of e-mailing you to recommend this one. The publisher drew it to my attention, and I’m glad, ‘cos it’s not something I’d normally have gone for. I’m only about halfway through but it’s very well-written and intriguing. I was going to say thought-provoking but actually (she said boastfully) she’s not really telling me much I didn’t already know – the intrigue comes from her own journey of discovery to reach a position (I think) that I’ve held for a long while. I wonder what you’ll think? I was a tiny bit hesitant to recommend it, because I’m not sure that you and I are wholly in agreement over Israel, but it’s a very human story and worth reading even if you end up feeling she’s swaying too far in one direction. If I was criticising, I’d say two things – hard to believe she reached the age she has without knowing the truth about Israel’s behaviour to Palestinian Arabs and secondly, she veers occasionally towards the maudlin end of liberal political correctness. But both are minor criticisms – definitely worth reading. Hope you’re approved!

      Phew! This comment has almost turned into a review! Sorry!

      • Well I’m awfully pleased to get your approval of this one, as they have just approved me! Now i shall be intrigued to see/hear what you think my view of Israel is, (caught in a classic trap of seeing both heartbreaking sides) – and I love books where authors are having their own ‘awakenings’ ‘maudlin end of liberal PC’ – I had to look in the mirror and wonder if I was blushing, on that one!’ I do also think that most of us are moderately happy to live in denial on all sorts of things, and this can get actively encouraged by political systems and those who administer them, not to mention the media, which, like all of us, has its own biases with which to view its world, and presents us with selective information. ‘Well-written’ as you know is always a pre-requisite for me. One of the real challenges of the ARC is NOT KNOWING (especially with a first-time author) if they are capable of using language with precision, a personal (readable) voice and the like. So I hope I’ll be enthralled too. Meanwhile, I’ve just ordered a second hand wood book from another blogger’s reccs, and a CD because i think I don’t have enough CDs by a certain composer and this one has one work I heard in concert a couple of years ago but don’t HAVE. The TBR as well as the TBLT, mounts. And then of course there’s all the TBW. At least, residing in the fridge is a little TBE stack (chocolates from Hotel Chocolat)

        • I think I’m more hardline about it, but I’ve found that spouting off about Israel simply leads to accusations of anti-Semitism (not from you, m’dear! In general…) so I tend to keep my opinion to myself, on the whole. Or at least, offline…

          I hope you enjoy it – I’m pretty sure you will. The publisher is holding out hopes that it might be a surprise winner of one of the non-fiction prizes, and I think that’s a possibility, unless the political message disbars it (in our nation of free speech!).

          I’m really trying to stop acquiring books – hands up all those who think I’m succeeding! Ah well, I might carry out a midnight raid on your fridge tonight…

          • FORTUNATELY there is a tube strike which has started and will run all day tomorrow too, so even if you take the train down you won’t be able to get here, and no doubt every taxi, bus and the very roads themselves (should you decide to drive) will be grid-locked. My chocolates, thems are safe! Not to mention my very ferocious watch cats will be guarding the fridge. I’ve taken the precaution of smearing sardines over the top door of the fridge – it’s out of their reach, but causes them to sit attentively beneath.

  6. Oh come on! You have to tell me how it ended. I love spoilers! Now I’m wondering what could’ve possibly happened to so ruin it within the last few pages. I think I remember a book that was like that, can you believe. *shudders*

    No picture of the author!

    • Well… I shouldn’t really… but… well, Murray was just about to reveal the murderer when one of the elephants went on a rampage… and sat on him! He’ll live…but now he’s only about the same height as Zez…

      Ooh, what book? Or has your subconscious blocked it?

      It’s interesting (FF-type interesting that is – so not very) – I can’t trace a single picture of this author online. She uses a little cartoon drawing for her profile, even on her own website. She must be even more paranoid about online privacy than me…

      • *laughing* And I’m guessing he can’t speak now either. Dadblameit. Imagine an elephant sitting on you. It’d hurt, I think.

        I think it was this sorta series.

        *laughing* And here I plaster myself everywhere. If someone comes after me, I’ll call you. We should hunt her down, I say! And find her picture.

  7. I find it rather sad to have spent considerable time and energy on a book (as the reader, of course), only to have the author fail to provide a satisfying ending. The endings I dislike most are those ambiguous ones, where one is left to invent whatever one wants. Huh?? Who’s writing the thing anyway? Okay, I’ll hop down off my soapbox and just say, Thank you, FF, for another great review. This one doesn’t sound like something I’d particularly enjoy, though I’m with Lucy and would love having a man-servant!

    • Yes, I like to be told what’s happened too usually – amibiguous endings only work if they’re incredibly well written, and they rarely are! Mind you, with this one I think I’d have preferred ambiguous to the ending she actually used, which didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the book at all!

      When I rule the world all women will have a man-servant – vote for me!! 😉

  8. Before I read your later comment, I did figure that you meant that a main character would be killed. Apparently not, but it seems that the character will be badly injured, which will of course change the whole nature of the series. What a shame. Up until that point, the book sounds quite good; I love stories about colonial British having adventures in far-away lands.

    But yes, the ending of a book is very important. Here we apparently have a whole series, and the author decided that she would change the nature of the series into something else. That is very disappointing for the readers. I think that authors do owe some responsibility to the readers in that regard. I was not at all happy that Colin Dexter had Morse die; why couldn’t he just have him retire, or end the series with a satisfactory case,and then not write any more? Agatha can be blamed in that way, too, for her final Poirot and Marple (I refused to read that one) stories. And Doyle, of course, but he relented, which I am very pleased about, not just for the additional stories, but because Holmes is timeless and iconic.

    “Atonement,” now there is an interesting subject. I listened to the book on tape; thought it was quite good–until the ending, which I thought was a clever cheat, albeit with some resonance. I saw the movie, too, but I do not remember how it differed much, but I guess it did with the fate of Briony as the older writer. I know that the authors do not deliberately set out to cheat the readers, but sometimes I do think that endings of books are indulgent. If someone gets bored with a series they are writing, they should stop for a while and write some other series, not completely change the nature of that one, and disappoint the loyal readers.

    There is a book I “found” (even with my extremely limited computer skills), called, “Why Read Moby-Dick?” by Nathaniel Philbrick. He apparently undertakes a passionate defense of this novel, bravo to him! I insist that it is a great novel, and not a slog, not if you like the ornate and almost lyrical prose style. If not, well, then it might be somewhat of a slog in parts.

    • Despite the fact that I’m criticising this one, you may well like this series if you enjoy historical fiction. The mystery side of them is OK – good enough. But the picture she paints of various aspects of Scottish society at the time is really excellent – extremely well-researched and accurate, as far as I can tell. I think she’s an academic historian in her other life. And Charles Murray is a very likeable protagonist. All of which is why I was so annoyed at the abrupt change of tone at the end – I read these books as semi-‘cosies’ expecting them to leave me smiling…

      Yes, I prefer them not to kill the detective off too, though I suspect they do it in a failed attempt to stop other people appropriating their characters after the writer’s death. I did read the last Poirot but really hated it, and like you was delighted when Holmes returned from the grave. I don’t think I’d have felt the same about even the early stories if he’d been left unresurrected at the end.

      I honestly can’t remember much about how Atonement ended – either book or film – except that I remember being completely blown away (to sobbing!) by Redgrave’s performance. It was the stand-out of the film for me – that and the war scenes. The other stuff I thought was better in the book.

      Haha! I shall try to like Moby! But I’m making no promises… 😉

      • Tell me which book in this series you think I would like, and I will read it. I do love good adventure fiction set in the 19th century. I don’t think I would read the whole series, but maybe one or two, even if they are completely out of sequence. If you like them so much, they have to be very good. 🙂

        • Well, looking back at my reviews I think I’d probably recommend Service of the Heir. Like some of the others, the plot is a bit thin, though OK. But in this one, Charles has come to Edinburgh on the death of his father and it gives a great picture of the city both in the drawing rooms of the wealthy and in the taverns and backstreets of the poor. But this one, despite my criticism, is very good too – the Indian setting is great – and not having followed the series you probably wouldn’t be as annoyed by the change of tone as I was. But perhaps you ought to see how you get on with I Am Legend and On Beulah Height before you try any more of my recommendations – remember Fallen Land! 😉

  9. Hi FictionFan, so glad i read this post, you have spared me the disappointment of a bad ending, I hate rubbish endings – it would also be put me off a series too. And, i have learned that the Red Fort was home to the British resident commissioner and I love snippets of info like that – especially as I visited The Red Fort and missed that bit of info! Cheers 🙂

    • Yes, it certainly destroyed a lot of the pleasure for me – though I wouldn’t say it was bad exactly. Just changed the tone of the book in a direction I didn’t like. And one of those things that will affect the rest of the series. Oh well! Ha! Yes, I think I learn more history from historical fiction than from actual history – and I must say Conyngham presents her stuff accurately and well…

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